Interpretation

Forgetting where the car is parked
means something important left undone.

The structure deflated like punched dough
means vulnerability and self-blame.

The taxi that makes stop after stop for hours
is the same as the airport with no signs:

what made you think you had any control
over where you're going or when you arrive?

The suitcase that won't hold everything
means the same as the one left behind.

The empty hot tub at the top of the house
is ambiguous, but skylights mean hope.

 


 

None of these statements accord with any school of dream (or poem) interpretation I know. I'm also not sure how I feel about placing any single interpretation on a dream or poem. But both are worth holding up to the kaleidoscope, turning them to see what we learn from how the shapes (re)align.


Fine Dining

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The Italian place I remember
had dark walls, and candles
in cut-glass red votive bowls.
I thought the owner was Polish.

He and my dad were buddies,
talked business, smoked cigars.
I wore black-patent Mary Janes,
drank Shirley Temples, feasted

on baskets of crusty bolillos:
French bread reimagined
into perfect torpedoes
by Mexican hands.

That's where Dad taught me
how to relish soft-shell crab,
and the names of big wine bottles
like Jeroboam and Methuselah.

All I knew about Methuselah
was that he lived a long time,
maybe forever. I thought
Dad would too.

 


 

The restaurant that inspired this poem was the original Paesano's. Here's a reflection on the place written at its 50th anniversary, and here's an oral history from Joe Cosniak. I went to junior high and high school with the daughter of co-owner and chef Nick Pacelli, of blessed memory. 

The photograph above came from Vintage San Antonio - A Photo History (FB). Meanwhile, bolillos are a Mexican roll which some trace to the period of French colonization in Mexico. I baked some today. Mine aren't as beautiful as the ones from Paesano's, but they're still pretty good.

Obviously my household of origin didn't keep kosher. I don't eat soft-shell crab anymore, but I remember loving them when I was a kid. Shrimp Paesano, too. Maybe it's just as well: let them be a memory, along with Dad's cigar smoke and the way he laughed with his friends.


After (the) Death - Yizkor

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We're in a slightly strange position today, spiritually speaking. We are a Reform congregation, and in the Reform world, Pesach is a seven-day festival -- as it is in Israel for Jews of all denominations. Today is no longer Pesach; it's "just" Shabbat, like any other Shabbat.

And yet we're saying the Yizkor memorial prayers today, which is a thing we do at the end of Pesach. We could have held a special service for the seventh day of Pesach and recited Yizkor yesterday, but most of us don't have the practice of taking off work for 7th day chag.

So here we are, preparing for Yizkor even though it isn't Pesach for us. This year, maybe because I am myself a mourner, I noticed something about the confluence of Yizkor and the Torah portion we read today, the first part of Acharei Mot, "After the Death."

The death in question is that of Aaron's two sons, who died after bringing "strange fire" before God. At the moment of their death, Torah tells us, Aaron was silent. Sometimes, loss can steal our ability even to speak. We have no words, because in that moment there are no words to have.

After the death of Aaron's sons, God tells Moses to tell Aaron not to come "at will" into the Holy of Holies, because God's presence there is so powerful that Aaron might die. Instead, Torah outlines a set of practices: here are the garments to wear, the offerings to bring, in order to be safe.

In Torah's paradigm, direct unmediated experience of God is dangerous. (That's why when Moshe asks to see God's glory, God covers him in the cleft of a rock face and passes by, and Moshe only gets to witness the divine Afterimage.) The rituals of sacrifice made contact with God safe.

Grief and loss can overwhelm us, even blow out our regular spiritual circuits. And they're meant to. This is what it means to be human: to love, and to lose. Our tradition's mourning rituals provide structure, telling us when to stay home and when to emerge, and when to give ourselves space to remember.

Reciting the Yizkor prayers four times a year gives a predictable rhythm to the ebb and flow of mourning. The prayers are the same, whether at Yom Kippur or Shemini Atzeret or Pesach or Shavuot, but the way we feel saying them might change over the course of the year -- or from year to year.

A loss that's brand-new can be raw and overwhelming, can steal our words and our breath. A loss that's decades old might feel familiar, more like a broken bone long-ago healed than like a stab wound. Yizkor carries us through from new sharp loss to old familiar recollection.

That shift might take years, and there's no way to rush it. Grief takes the time it takes, and we feel what we feel, and eventually the sharp edges become gentler. Saying Yizkor four times a year is our spiritual technology for plugging in to our losses in community in a way that's safe.

Suddenly it feels exactly right to me that this year's end-of-Pesach Yizkor coincides with reading this first part of Acharei Mot. Like Aaron, we are faced with the question of how to make meaning after loss... and how to feel everything we need to feel while also functioning in the world.

Aaron relied on ritual to safely enter behind the curtain into the place where God's presence was most palpable. And we rely on ritual in our practice of Yizkor, the words we pray as we remember our dead. This too is a kind of going-behind-the-curtain into direct personal encounter.

Even if you don't typically wear a tallit for prayer, I invite you to pick one up as we begin Yizkor. Wrap yourself in it; maybe it feels like an embrace. And when we enter into silence, go behind the curtain of your tallit and take some time to connect with memory and with those whom you've lost.

May our prayers and our song and our silence be a safe container for whatever each of us needs to feel. May this ancient practice hold us up and help us through. And may we emerge from today's encounter with loss and memory feeling present and whole, and sanctified, and not alone.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Four Children

 


Grief, sometimes
you're the wise child reminding me

you wouldn't even be
at my table if I didn't love.

Sometimes you're the unruly one
insisting life is nothing

but an invitation to loss,
over and over. You sneer

care isn't infinite, only
this sea of salt tears.

Mostly you're the one
who doesn't know how to ask --

or how to answer
when you will depart.

 


 

This poem arises out of the haggadah's four paradigmatic children. Shared with gratitude to my fellow Bayit board member and dear friend R. Pamela Gottfried, who remarked to me earlier this week that "Grief is a wayward and rebellious child" -- which sparked this poem.


New prayer-poems for the Omer journey

On Saturday night at second seder we'll begin counting the Omer: the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. Here are seven new prayer-poems for that journey, one for each week -- plus a prayer before counting, and a closing piece that integrates the journey before Shavuot -- from Bayit: Building Jewish: Step by Step / Omer 5782.

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This time, seven members of Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group wanted to co-create together. So each of us took one week of the Omer. (I got hod, the week of humility and splendor.)

I also wrote an adaptation of a classical prayer before counting the Omer, and we co-wrote a kind of cento, a collaborative poem made (mostly) of lines from our other pieces woven-together, for the end of the journey. You can find all of this (in PDF form, and also as google slides) here at Builders Blog.

Shared with deepest thanks to collaborators and co-creators Trisha Arlin, R. Dara Lithwick, R. Bracha Jaffe, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, and R. David Zaslow. We hope these new prayer-poems uplift you on your journey toward Sinai.


Vintage

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I found it in one of my mother's desk drawers. Mostly the drawer contained pens, mechanical pencils, a few thick yellow highlighters. And then there was this little metal case, shaped like a teardrop with a rounded tip. At first I mistook it for a white-out tape dispenser, though Mom hadn't owned an electric typewriter in years. When I pried it open, I found a vintage pitch pipe. The cylinder is silvery (probably made of tin) with a shape like a stylized cloud at one end, engraved with letters representing the chromatic scale. On the back it says MADE IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Crafted there, but engraved in English: it must have been made for export. An internet search suggests that these were common in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Did this one come with my grandparents from Prague in 1939? Did Mom pick it up to sing camp songs with her friends in 1950, the year she returned home and told her parents she'd met the man she planned to marry? There's no one left who can tell me its story, but its sound is pure and clear.

 

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Mom and three friends at Camp Bonim, circa 1953. She's second from the left. 

 

Related: Keys


Four weeks

I'm fine
except when I'm not.
Four weeks since
the big green tent.
I can't bear to listen
to the saved voicemail.

Most days
I make coffee, pack
my son's lunch for school,
dodge the cold spring raindrops.
Then I remember seder is coming
and you're gone

not here
not anywhere, not even
in that plain wooden casket
that we lowered into the ground.
Minutes go by, sometimes hours
before I shake it off.

How do I get
this postcard to you?
If I light a cigar, will the smoke
reach where you are? Should I
burn this with the hametz
my son will find by candlelight?

Grief rises up,
becomes my spiritual practice.
Like a meditation retreat
it makes my skin thin,
opens my bruised heart.
My mikvah is tears.

 

If this speaks to you, you might also find comfort in Crossing the Sea and/or in Beside Still Waters.


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.


Questions

Was the roast meat smoky, maybe
charred from fire? We'll never know.
Back then everyone knew
only free people got couches.

Gemara says: a wise child asks.
Any gender may ask.
Two scholars can ask each other.
If there’s no one, ask yourself.

Why these questions, why now?
Matzah and maror say slavery.
Dipping and reclining say freedom.
Tonight we lean into both:

where we were, and where we are.
Kruschev hated Jews because
“We always ask why,” but
God loves it when we question.

 


Roast meat - see Mishna Pesachim 10:4:2. Originally the text we now know as "The Four Questions" had a different form, and included a question about roasted meat, a reference to the lamb sacrificed just before the Exodus and the paschal lamb sacrificed while the Temple stood. Only free people - see Pesachim 108a.  When reclining on a dining couch was a known practice, there was no need to ask a question about it. Gemara says - see Pesachim 116a, about who asks the questions. Two represent - see Zevach Pesach, Don Isaac Abravanel.  Kruschev and God loves questions - see Rabbi Steve Greenberg, “Wrestling with God and Men."

You can find all of these source texts and more in David Schwartz's excellent Sefaria source sheet The Story of the Four Questions. And if this interests you, I'm teaching a Zoom class on this at my shul at 5pm ET on Sunday; click through to learn more and to register to get the Zoom link.


Tazria and What Community Is For

 

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This week's Torah portion, Tazria, speaks in detail about a condition called tzara'at.

Many translations render tzara'at as leprosy, though that's clearly not what this is. Some other year I'll teach about the different ways our tradition has understood tzara'at, e.g. as a spiritual sickness, or a metaphor for slander, or a punishment for racism. This year I want to talk about something else.

Torah teaches this week that a person with tzara'at is considered tamei. So is someone who's given birth, or who's been in contact with a dead body. A lot of translations use the language of "unclean" and "clean" for the Hebrew terms tamei and tahor, though I really don't like that translation.

Rabbi Rachel Adler teaches that tum'ah (the state of being tamei) implies being charged-up with a kind of spiritual electricity. Something about contact with blood or birth or death makes us vibrate spiritually at a different frequency for a while. (I have written about this before.)

This isn't about uncleanness, and it isn't a value judgment. All of us are tahor sometimes and tamei sometimes, and being postpartum or in contact with death really is a different spiritual space. Okay. But what does this have to do with tzara'at, whatever it is, and what is this text calling us to do?

When the priest determined that someone had tzara'at, that person would be quarantined from the community for seven days. Then there was another examination. If the affliction was still there, the person was instructed to call out, "Tamei, tamei!" as they went about their business.

Reading this, I've often felt sorry for the m'tzora (the person with tzara'at). It isn't bad enough that they have this condition; now they have to proclaim their situation everywhere they go?! But this year a friend pointed me toward a passage in Talmud that completely changes how I feel about this verse:

As it is taught in a baraita: It is derived from the verse: “And he will cry: Tamei, tamei” (Leviticus 13:45), that a person with tzara'at must publicize the fact that he is tamei. He must announce his pain to the masses, and the masses will pray for mercy on his behalf. And likewise, one to whom any unfortunate matter happens must announce it to the masses, and then the masses will pray for mercy on his behalf. (B.T. Chullin 78a)

The reason for calling out "Tamei, tamei!" is not to shame the person who's afflicted. After all, as R. Adler notes, everyone is tahor sometimes and tamei sometimes. Talmud means to teach that when we are afflicted, we need to make that known to the community so the community can pray for us.

This leads to the question of what prayer is for. Do we pray in order to effect an outcome, or do we pray in order to sensitize ourselves to the needs of those around us? Both of these are legitimate Jewish theologies of prayer, though for me, the second one is the one that really resonates.

When I pray for someone's healing, I know that my prayer may not change their medical condition. But the act of extending my heart to God on their behalf can change me. And from that changed place, I am more aware of their needs, and that's what impels me to take action to help them.

Maybe that means checking in to see how they are. Or paying them a visit. Or providing a meal. Or wearing a mask because they're immunocompromised. Or avoiding perfume because scents give them migraines. Or sending a note. Or even just asking if they're okay, and really listening in response.

These aren't the rabbi's job. (Though I do try to do these things!) These are the responsibility of the community.  This is why we we list aloud each week those for whom we pray for healing -- so that the community will know that so-and-so is sick and in need of our prayers, our support, and our care.

The same is true of someone who's grieving, or who's lost a job, or who's grappling with depression or mental illness, or -- you name it. After all, Talmud tells us that when we are experiencing "any unfortunate matter," we should communicate that to our community so the community can step up.

Jewishly speaking, that's the purpose of community: to feed the hungry and comfort the mourner. To pray for each others' well-being, and then take actions that uplift those prayers and make them real. The purpose of community is to take care of whoever's in need. I really love that.

Returning to Torah's teaching that someone with tzara'at is tamei: yeah, our afflictions -- whether illness or another kind of suffering -- can make us feel disconnected, different from everyone else. But when we can admit that we're in that place, that's when others can reach in and be with us where we are.

This year I'm also noticing an aural connection between the words m'tzora (a person with tzara'at) and Mitzrayim (Egypt, the Narrow Place, constriction and tsuris) In two weeks we'll celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, Y'tziat Mitzrayim -- going forth from the constriction of suffering into expansive hope.

Tazria reminds us that when we've got tsuris, it's our job to let the community know so the community can pray for us -- and act in ways that make those prayers real. That's how we get to Y'tziat Mitzrayim: by taking care of each other. No one needs to be alone in suffering. No one crosses the sea alone.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at CBI of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my new From the Rabbi blog.)

The image at the top of this page combines a photograph by Len Radin with a parsha poster by Hillel Smith, available on his website.


Unmoored

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My parents in Moscow, late 80s or early 90s. 


Everything feels unfinished. Every thought that comes to mind is a sentence half-spoken. I jot down one clause -- "the death of a parent casts a long shadow" -- and then I don't know where to go from there. 

Pesach is coming sooner than I think. I start a seder menu, then my efforts trail off. I'll have one vegetarian, one picky eater, and one diabetic. I can't think of a good main course to suit all of us.

I open a book I've read before, Black Sea, by Caroline Eden. It's a travelogue with recipes. She writes about how surprisingly Jewish the food of Odessa is. Tsimmes and forshmak are Ukrainian foods.

She describes sunny afternoons, the still air of quiet museums, pastel-colored architecture slowly decaying, literary stories of ice cream. Today the streets are filled with sandbags and barricades

At the end of the Odessa chapter she offers a recipe for black radishes and carrots with caraway and cider vinegar and honey. I have those things! But what to eat them with? I run out of steam again.

Why am I struggling to concentrate enough to get even the simplest things done? Why does everything feel dulled? My friend's reply is gentle: "Do I need to remind you, you're still in shloshim?" Oh.

This feels different from grieving my mother. When Mom died, the sorrow was sharp and intense, the emotional equivalent of a gaping chest wound. Dad's death lands differently, but it still lands.

I keep returning to the mental image of a door closing. I feel like a game piece that has been invisibly advanced on the board. As though my parents, when living, had stood between me and mortality.

In some ways, they're always with me. I greet Mom when I pass by her photo, or her honeymoon purse from 1954, or the ceramic mezuzah in my hallway that came from her desk. I talk to her all the time.

I will learn to talk to Dad, too. And yet I can't call them on the phone or hug them. Their siblings are still here, and of course my own siblings are still here, but my world feels qualitatively different. 

Yes, this twitchy sense of distraction and incompleteness is grief. My world has shifted on its axis and I haven't altogether regained my footing yet. I feel unmoored and drifting in my little boat.

I'm not lost; I can see the shore. But I don't have a paddle, and I don't think trying would get me there anyway. I have to trust the tides and the simple passage of time to bring me home.


Graveside


Rectangular hole.
Pile of earth
draped in astroturf:

like a challah
shyly enfolded
while we bless

candles and wine,
like a Torah
covered for modesty.

This pine box
is a cradle
for an empty shell.

What's left after
what made him
my father,

big
and alive,
is gone.

 


The scene was exactly as I expected: a dark green tent above an array of folding chairs, a large rectangular hole in the ground next to a pile of earth discreetly draped in astroturf. I braced myself.

And then I noticed. The hole is over here, and the tent, and the astroturf. And their shared headstone, with Mom's name and dates engraved on it, is over there -- some twenty feet away.

"They dug the hole in the wrong place," I said, out loud. Disbelief gave way to laughter, edging up to hysteria. One of the undertakers had a phone to his ear, pacing and gesturing as he spoke.

As each of my siblings arrived, and my father's siblings, I watched as they went through the same mental process. Here's the hole... but wait, there's the headstone. Something's wrong. They're not together.

I decided that my parents were relaxing on lounge chairs in olam ha-ba, cocktails in hand, laughing. "Never mind the weather, long as we're together," I sang, imagining Mom singing it to Dad. 

It took a while to disentangle, but it turns out that my father's grave was dug in the correct place. The grave where we buried my mother three years ago...? That plot turns out to belong to someone else.

Two days later, a few of us reconvened at the cemetery to consecrate Mom's new grave. The headstone was moved too; now it sits like the headboard of a bed. They're each buried on the correct side.

I sang El Maleh Rachamim over my mother's new grave, planting my feet to draw strength from the earth. Two parallel mounds of earth, as though we had just tucked them both in together to sleep.

 

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The history of the bagel and the antisemitism of now

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On Shabbat I was reading up on the history of the bagel, and I ran across this: 

In that era it was quite common in Poland for Jews to be prohibited from baking bread. This stemmed from the commonly held belief that Jews, viewed as enemies of the Church, should be denied any bread at all...

The shift started to take place in the late 13th century [with] the breakthrough code that came from the Polish Prince Boleslaw the Pious in 1264 that said, "Jews may freely buy and sell and touch bread like Christians."

(Source: The Secret History of Bagels in The Atlantic. Bagels: A Surprising Jewish History at Aish is also good.) I'm always a little bit horrified to discover yet another way in which the Christian world has mistreated Jews. Even when I think I have a handle on antisemitism, there's always more. 

My first reaction to this cropping up in the bagel article was disbelieving laughter: seriously, not allowed to buy, sell, or touch bread at a bakery? I'm not surprised that we weren't allowed to bake commercially. I know we were banned from most trades in Europe. But not even allowed to pick up a roll?

The laughter is a defense mechanism, of course. Behind it are rage and tears. I'm reading about the history of the bagel as Putin gaslights his nation and the world, making the absurd claim that he's destroying Ukraine in order to rid it of Nazis when this could not be further from the truth.

I'm reading about the history of the bagel as I also swim through Twitter threads where (some) Christians are refusing to understand how trash-talking the Pharisees harms Jews. (Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg / @TheRaDR has written beautifully about this -- see this excellent thread.)

I'm reading about the history of the bagel as I struggle to adjust to new security protocols at my small-town synagogue. Bulletproof glass, panic buttons, trainings on how to identify threats and how to stanch bleeding, just in case we become the next Colleyville or Poway or Squirrel Hill.)

It's safer now to be Jewish than at most points in our history. We're less likely to be killed for being who we are. (Less likely doesn't mean impossible, but our odds are better.) Still, I suspect a lot of people who aren't Jewish don't understand the weight of collective trauma from centuries of this.

"Not allowed to bake commercially or touch bread" is laughable, minor compared with pogroms and blood libel and Eastertide massacres and all the rest. (See, e.g., Hundreds of Jews Massacred in Prague on Easter, 1389; Lisbon Easter Slaughter, 1506, Kishinev pogrom, 1903.) But it's all of a piece.

And that's why sometimes little examples of antisemitism in our daily lives can tip us over the edge into a kind of post-traumatic stress response. Because other people's hatred of Jews, historical and present, is in the air we breathe. It shouldn't be, but it is, and it unconsciously weighs us down.

For years I resisted creating an "antisemitism" category on this blog. I wanted to focus my attention on what's beautiful and meaningful and rich about my traditions, on Jewish joy and spiritual practice and resilience, not on those who hate us. But ignoring antisemitism feels irresponsible to me now. 

How do I walk and work and pray in this world, knowing that this ancient irrational hatred -- visible throughout our history in ways both big and small -- persists and might touch my son, or the Jews-by-choice whom I welcome into our covenant, or any of us? With the quiet defiance of making bagels.

I'm being flip, and I'm also telling the truth. I make these pumpernickel bagels. (Which I've made before.) And I bake challah most Fridays. And make gefilte fish at Pesach. And keep Shabbat. And sing and pray, and build a sukkah each year, and teach my son to be proud of our ways.

The only way I know to respond to "Jews will not replace us," to antisemitic caricatures in books and video games, to all of this, is by doubling down on Jewish spiritual practices and values -- continuing to be who we are. So this morning I made motzi over my own bagels, and I savored every bite. 

 


Perpetual fire

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"A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out." (Lev.6:6)

 

Kindling is easy.
I nudge a lighter
with my thumb:

instant flame for
the shiva candle
on my counter.

After seven days
that flame dies.
Does my father

recede further? No --
his eyes are gone
but not the spark

that lit them.
The altar is gone;
the fire's not.

The Temple's gone
like dad's body,
returned to earth.

The Shabbes table
is an altar now,
complete with salt.

There are candles,
but they aren't
fire forever burning.

The fire forever burning
is the fact of Shabbes,
the act of Shabbes.

And my father?
Cigar smoke lingers
like priestly incense.

If I can
hear his voice,
remember his laugh

he's still here
though I can't clasp
his hand anymore.

We remember Shabbat.
We remember our dead.
The fire does not go out.

 

This poem serves as my commentary on this week's Torah portion, Tzav, offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel and cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog there.

Written in memory of my dad Marvin Barenblat z"l, for whom I've been sitting shiva all week.

I'm particularly fond of the Torah poem for this parsha that appears in 70 faces, too: Tzav: Command


Marvin Wolfe Barenblat z"l

Collage

Top row: wedding and honeymoon in 1954, and in the middle, a party at my grandparents' house in 1956. Middle row: Dad and me, circa 1976, 1984, and 1980. Bottom row: with my kid in 2014, with Mom and kid in 2015, with kid and me two weeks ago, not long before the end.

 

1. 

We buried my father, Marvin Wolfe Barenblat z"l, on Friday. He was eighty-seven years old. He was generous and funny and opinionated. It will be a while before I really understand the spiritual impacts of the fact that that both of my parents are now gone.

There are so many stories. How he grew up in San Antonio with immigrant parents. How he met my mother. Work and travel and parties. (Everyone agrees that my parents knew how to have a good time!) The places he went, the stories he told, the bargains he struck. His gregariousness. His smile.

Mine are small stories, the stories of a youngest daughter. Just as the photos above are photos that are not necessarily representative of the whole: these photos show my parents as newlyweds, then my father and me, then my father and my child. These vignettes are the picture of his life that I can most easily paint. 

2. 

One of my earliest memories is waking up in the morning and taking my clothes into my dad's walk-in closet to get dressed there. I remember Dad splashing water at the fogged-up glass doors of his shower, and making faces at me, and making me laugh.

When I was five, my parents built a lakehouse on the Guadalupe where it feeds into Lake McQueeney, and we went there often. I used to feel sorry for our cat Leland who would yowl in the car, so I'd let him out of his carrier and he'd walk across the dashboard and Dad would yell. (Dad complained about the cat, but in early mornings he'd beckon, "c'mere, Lele," offering a ramekin of milk.) On the way to the lake we'd stop at a convenience store to get ovals of hard spicy cured sausage hanging on strings.

I remember Dad driving the boat in the evening, maybe with scotch and soda in a Texas-sized styrofoam cup that said Dad's Roadie. (Mom had those cups printed for him, back when it was legal to take "one for the road.") I remember him perched sideways on the side of the boat, his hair windblown, pushing up the throttle to pull whoever was about to ski next. I also remember that he would get frustrated if someone was struggling to get up on skis, and I never wanted him to be frustrated with me.

3. 

Dad encouraged me to try new foods. As a child I craved his attention, so I became an adventurous eater. I especially enjoyed escargots (and the joke he would tell, the one with the punchline "look at that S-car go!") He always let me taste his wine. As a little girl I remember chirping, "My favorite wine is Chassagnet Montrachet!" to the amusement of his friends. Relatedly, he taught me the names of big wine bottles -- magnum, Jeroboam, Methuselah. 

The year I was ten we lived in Manhattan. Dad spent part of that year in traction with a ruptured disc, but most of my memories of him from that year are of Dad enjoying city life: smoking his cigar on the tiny balcony of our 37th floor apartment, or taking Mom and me to the theater and to as many restaurants as we could visit. There was a Chinese place he really liked called Pig Heaven. For a treat, he would take me to Serendipity for frozen hot chocolate.

Once when I was a teenager my mother was away and Dad took me out for dinner. I dressed up, in a denim miniskirt and big flashy earrings and lots of eye makeup. We overheard a scandalized fellow customer -- "Look at that man, isn't he embarrassed to be out with a girl that young, she could be his granddaughter!" He thought that was hilarious. When I was 14 and we visited Egypt, Dad joked with merchants in the Cairo souq about whether he would sell me if they offered enough camels. 

4. 

Dad had a notorious temper. (When he pitched a fit, Mom called it "having a piñata.") Relatedly, he disowned me on my 18th birthday because he was mad at me. A week later he took me out for enchiladas at Brown's on south Hackberry, where his father used to take him, and he told me, "I wouldn't sell you for $100, kid." That was his way of apologizing.

A number of years later he also took me for enchiladas at Casbeers, which sparked a poem. Both of those establishments are long gone now. Dad knew San Antonio inside and out; aside from one year in Manhattan, it was his forever home. He'd worked in construction with his father as a newlywed, and he remembered before all the elevated highways changed the shape of the city. He used to drive around and reminisce -- that's where we used to live, my mother had a chicken coop in the back yard...

When my parents were young they traveled to Acapulco with friends at least once a year, and to Las Vegas ditto. Later in life they traveled the world. They went to Kenya with two couples in 1982 -- their friend Sy was a hematologist studying blood-borne diseases in primates -- and they stayed at the Treetops lodge. They went to China with friends around then too, and when they came home they showed slides on the dining room wall.

During the years when he owned a crystal import business, they traveled in Eastern Europe several times a year for work. Once I was with them on a business trip there, and Dad took me to a place in Frankfurt that served the very best schweinshaxe -- pig's knuckles -- so I could try them too.

5. 

So many of my memories of Dad involve food. He snacked on spicy pickled okra, and on Ba-tampte pickled tomatoes that he cut into quarters and ate with a fork. He never cooked, but was a master at the grill. At the Barn Door, he used to eat steak basted in butter alongside twice-baked jalapeño potatoes stuffed with cheese. He'd grown up kosher, but my parents never kept a kosher kitchen. (Though when some of their kids became kosher, they made sure that family meals were kosher so we could all eat.)

In my childhood home he always kept a box of See's toffee that came with a tiny golden hammer. He pretended it was our secret and Mom didn't know it was there. That felt conspiratorial and sweet. When I was in college he sent me boxes of that candy, much to the delight of my friends. Later in life he ordered Enstrom's toffee to arrive at my door and my sister's door every December like clockwork. He loved being able to give people food or wine that he knew they would enjoy.

When I was in my twenties, my mom encouraged him to come north and visit sometimes without her. Once he and I walked from my office to Jack's Hot Dog Stand a couple of blocks away. It was a beautiful but frigid January day, with a crystal-clear blue sky and a wind chill around -20 degrees. For years he marveled about it, retelling the story again and again: "That sky was Texas blue, but the air was so cold it was like being smacked in the face with a frozen porcupine!" What a turn of phrase. 

6. 

In the last 20 years or so, Dad came often to seders at my sister's house. He used to comment on how different our seders had become -- his childhood seders were speed-sung in Yiddish! He spoke some Spanish and some Yiddish because those were languages his parents spoke. I'm told he gave his bar mitzvah speech twice, once in English and once in Yiddish.

His parents died on the same day in 1971. He told me that though he said daily kaddish for eleven months when his parents died (because he knew it mattered to Nana and Papa) he didn't care if his children did the same -- unless we would get something out of it, in which case he wouldn't stop us.

Dad used to tell me that being a Reform Jew was the best thing in the world because as long as you paid your temple dues, no one would tell you what you could or couldn't do! That made me laugh at the time, though in retrospect I hear something deep in it: for him, what mattered was supporting Jewish community and taking care of that community, not whether or not you kept Shabbes or kept kosher.

I remember sitting with him on a patio in Hot Springs, Arkansas, when I was in my early 30s (so he was in his early 70s.) We were there for the wedding of a cousin who, like me, bears his mother's name. He was wearing a warm brown blazer, smoking a cigar, and enjoying the crisp cool air. He told me he'd had a great run, and wouldn't mind dying whenever the time came. I've thought of that often lately.

7. 

Dad hated that Mom got sick at the end of her life and that no amount of medical intervention could save her. He would sit on his smoking porch with a cigar and shake his head and mournfully say, "I just don't understand how something like that could happen to someone as good as her." After she died, he visited her grave every day except for Saturdays when the cemetery was closed. 

When we visited him last, about ten days before the end, Dad was frail and confused and skipping around in time, asking where Mom was or speaking earnest paragraphs of word salad. But he managed to ask me if I needed anything -- trying to take care of me to the very end. He was charming and flirty with his caregivers.

He told his favorite caregiver that I was his youngest daughter. "Yeah? What's her name," Eddie prompted. "You ask her!" he retorted without missing a beat -- he couldn't remember my name, but he knew I was his kid. He also said to her, "You know what my daughter does?" (No, what, she asked.) "Ask her!" He couldn't remember the word rabbi, but he wanted Eddie to know that what I did, mattered.

The last day I saw him, I sang a line of "Hey, good-looking, what'cha got cookin,'" -- released in 1953, when he and my mom were courting -- and he sang the next line back -- "How's about cookin' something up with me?"

That morning he said something like, "If I weren't here, none of you would be in jail," gesturing around the room. I asked him if he felt like he was in jail and he shrugged. I told him that we were all there to be with him, and he smiled. But looking back, I think he knew that his life was ending -- I think "jail" was his body, after COVID and a heart attack and a stroke and everything else -- and he was ready to go.


Six million

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I've always felt the shadow presence of the six million. I grew up steeped in stories of villages, communities, lineages destroyed. My grandfather made it, but his family didn't. Six million Jewish lives ended by Nazis -- their absence was palpable. Silence where there should have been song. 

This morning the Washington Post reports that the global death toll from COVID-19 has reached that same awful number. How will the world be shaped by these six million deaths and the absences they leave behind? How can we begin to grapple with this staggering amount of global grief?

My father is slowly dying. Over the winter he survived COVID, and both of the hospitalizations that ensued. But the virus and its complications changed the amount and quality of time he has left. Surely countless others are in that same position: death hastened by COVID, even if not caused by it.

No one wants to sit with this grief. We want to celebrate things reopening. Return to restaurants! Shed those masks! Don't we want to be together? I feel it too -- the bone-deep yearning for a post-pandemic world. I am not an expert, but I'm pretty sure we are nowhere near a safe post-pandemic yet.

Many of us are anxiously watching Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the concomitant misinformation war. And the normalization of white supremacy and calls for political violence here, which tend to go hand-in-hand with antisemitism. (If your anxiety levels are skyrocketing, you are not alone.)

And yet I wonder whether the relentless headlines are keeping us from the grief work this moment asks of us. It's March again. Two years since this pandemic began turning the world upside-down. How can we sit shiva for six million? If we don't find space to grieve, how can we ever hope to heal?


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:


Keys

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Old barrel keys are heavy in the hand. Most have a round or oval bow, though two brassy ones sport criss-cross shapes instead. All have rounded shafts, pin holes of varying diameter, and idiosyncratic teeth. Shaped entirely unlike the keys I can get copied for a buck-fifty at the local hardware store. One is stamped J. MICHALIK PRAHA. Did that key travel with my mother and her parents in 1939? So did the sideboard where I keep china, the one with a cabinet to which I long ago lost the key. I try every key twice, but the Czech cabinet remains locked. Maybe it's better that way. I know it contains the silver goblet from my wedding, a marriage long ago undone. No one gets to know what else might be inside.


Trail

On your third yahrzeit
I said kaddish
riding on a speckled roan
surrounded by live oak
and prickly pear.

My horse was first in line.
I wanted to watch my son ride
but maybe this was right --
aren't I still
following you?

That morning
Dad asked where you are
three times.
Each time I answered
I watched him lose you again.

Magnified and sanctified,
I whispered in Aramaic.
My horse's ears twitched.
The mourning doves
murmured amen.

 


On my mother's third death-anniversary (on the Jewish calendar) I was in Texas with my son, visiting my father who is receiving hospice care. I wanted my son to have some sweet memories of this trip alongside the hard ones, so I looked for a place where we could go on a trail ride, somewhere not too far from town. I commend West Creek Trail Rides to you; all of their horses are rescues, and they're lovely. 

While the mishna teaches that one should dismount from a donkey before praying, the sages of the Talmud do permit praying while riding so long as one can pray with kavanah, intention and attention. (Brakhot 30a.) They were talking about the Amidah, but I think the teaching applies. And I know my mother would have been tickled by my unusual location for saying kaddish and remembering her.

 

If this poem speaks to you, you might find meaning in Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia -- poems chronicling my mother's death and my first eleven months of mourning.


The wilderness of not knowing: Ki Tisa 5782

In recent weeks we've been reading Torah's instructions for the mishkan, the sacred space that we build so God's presence may dwell in us. Soon we'll start reading about the actual building thereof. But in between the blueprints and the construction, in this week's Torah portion, there's another story.

"When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, 'Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses -- the man who brought us from the land of Egypt -- we do not know what has happened to him..." (Ex. 32:1)

Golden-calf_Time for the Golden Calf.

This year I'm noticing a new emotional valance. Moses went up the mountain, and they probably expected him to come right back down. But he didn't. And the path ahead began to seem uncertain. Maybe they felt like life was on pause, or felt uncertain when they would start moving again.

Instead of that nebulous uncertainty, they wanted something tangible. Don't tell us you don't know how long it will be: we want to get back to normal now. Just make something up so we can feel normal now, because the not-knowing and the waiting are psychologically and spiritually uncomfortable!

I think we know that feeling. And if that's sometimes true for us, how much more true it must have been for our spiritual ancestors emerging from slavery? Not knowing can be terrifying, especially for someone unaccustomed to freedom. They were like children: seeking easy answers, resisting growing up.

The thing is, there's holiness in the not-knowing. There's holiness in opening ourselves to the uncertainties of wilderness. It's no coincidence that our ancestors hear God's voice most clearly in the wilderness. The midbar (wilderness) is where God m'daber (speaks) -- or at least, where we hear.

Right now I'm in a different kind of midbar, a different kind of wilderness waiting. Some of you know that my father, who is eighty-seven, has been in and out of the hospital this winter with COVID and then post-COVID complications. He's now receiving hospice care. The end of his journey is beginning.

And we don't know when the end will be. The weight of that not-knowing is tremendous sometimes. There's a temptation to lurch toward certainties, to clutch at "answers" that aren't really answers. To think: what can we throw at this to yield a nice, satisfying answer that will get us back to normal?

But there is no "back to normal" when someone is dying. I can't go back to the years when he was vital and vibrant, because this is a new part of his journey now -- and mine. So I'm in the wilderness. It's not comfortable, sitting with mortality. I empathize with the Children of Israel making that calf.

And I know that this wilderness has something to teach me, if I can quiet my racing thoughts and anxious heart in order to learn. This is my own wilderness -- mine, and my family's. And... soon we will reach one million COVID deaths in the United States. There are a lot of us in this wilderness.

This week's Torah portion reminds me that it's tempting to clutch at whatever we think will make us feel better. Anything to push away this not-knowing, whether the uncertainty is personal (like my father's trajectory) or communal (like COVID). Not knowing what comes next (or when) is uncomfortable.

Today's golden calves are a bit subtler than the literal statue in Torah. Maybe we focus on denial of death, or on our outrage about the latest horrific headlines. Either way, we become like the guy in the Zen parable about the teacup: keeping our cup so artificially full that no wisdom can pour in.

This Shabbes, let's take time to be with the not-knowing. We don't know when death will come: that's not just true for my dad in hospice. We don't know when the pandemic will recede. We don't know when Moses will come back down the mountain. Let's open our hearts, and let the not-knowing in.

 

This is my d'varling from Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Cross-posted to my new From the Rabbi blog at CBI's new website.)