Statistics

Statistics

 




Rockets launched from XXXX into XXXX since October 7: 10,000
XXXX children killed since October 7: 10,000
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I opened with XXXX suffering: 50
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I mentioned XXXX suffering: 50
Residential units in XXXX destroyed or rendered uninhabitable: 65,000
XXXX who have moved back to XXXX: 2
Households in XXXX at risk of starvation: 1 in 4
Percentage of children brought to the ER at XXXX hospital now displaying PTSD: 43
Locations across XXXX where women and girls were reportedly XXXX and XXXX: 7
Witnesses who testified to that: 150
Bombs dropped by XXXX on XXXX since October 7: 45,000
Miles of distance in XXXX underground tunnel network in XXXX: 350-450
Square miles in XXXX: 141
XXXX hostages still in XXXXX captivity: 130
Citizens of XXXX displaced by XXXX and XXXX: 200,000
XXXX displaced by XXXX: 1.9 million
Number of opinions held by any two XXXX: 3
XXXX killed by XXXX since October 7: 20,000
XXXX I personally know who support XXXX: 0
XXXX I personally know: 0
Percentage chance that any two people reading this care about the same set of facts: unknown

 


 

I've been struck lately by the realization that part of the reason why we're talking past each other is that we're having entirely different conversations, fueled by entirely different facts. I don't just mean misinformation or disinformation, though God knows there's plenty of that these days. I mean disagreements where each party is working with real facts, but we're getting facts from entirely different sources. Are we reading Al-Jazeera, or Haaretz, or the Jerusalem Post? Are we reading news in English, or in Arabic, or in Hebrew? Which side's suffering is noted in the news outlet we trust, and how much distrust do we feel when presented with the other narrative? How often do we resort to whataboutism? A colleague noted to me a few days ago that people these days are always listening to see whose suffering gets mentioned first -- and if it's the "other side's" suffering, a lot of listeners will mentally check out or write off the person speaking as a supporter of "them," whoever that means. I wrote this poem thinking of Harper's Index (which still exists, it turns out, even though I haven't read the magazine in decades.) Every fact comes from what I consider to be a reputable source (except for the two lines about which readers are ignoring me depending on who they think I support more, which is speculation). I juxtaposed real data, and then blacked it out, making an erasure poem. I imagine that a lot of readers will automatically try to figure out which name or people or term has been obscured: am I making a point about the suffering of these people, or those people? The answer is yes. I'm grieving all of them. I'm grieving all of this. Including the fact that most of us can't have a conversation with someone who sees the situation differently, because we can't agree on which statistics even matter, much less recognize the infinite human suffering behind every number.


We Sanctify

Screen Shot 2024-02-01 at 9.55.49 AM




You who fill and surround creation, Who adorned the heavens in time before time

with the sparkling net of galaxies like gems in the sky’s expanse – 

You don't need us to make Your name great

throughout the world. It's all we can do

to hold this scant fractal 

encoded in our limbs, 

our temporary breath. 

 

We praise anyway,

through our generations –

not because You need to hear it

but because something in us shifts

whether we whisper this reminder or shout it to the skies: 

You are upwelling, indwelling, holy: the song that sings in us.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהו''ה, הָאֵל הַקָּדושׁ .Blessed are You, Holy One, God Who is holy

 


Sparkling net of galaxies. This image is an artist’s rendering of a supercluster of galaxies, from the Smithsonian magazine. Fractal / encoded in our limbs. The four-letter Name of God can be understood to map to the human body: yud is the head, heh is the arms, vav is the spine, heh is the legs. [O]ur temporary breath. R. Arthur Waskow teaches that we speak the Name every time we breathe.

 

Originally published in Holy / Kedusha, Bayit, Jan. 2024.

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This liturgical poem is one of my contributions to the latest collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group: Holy / Kedusha. Click through to Builders Blog to see the whole thing. As always, the offering is available both as a downloadable PDF and as slides suitable for screenshare.

Also as always, what we co-created is more than the sum of its parts. Both of the pieces I drafted were inspired by something that someone else wrote or said, and I wouldn't have written either one were it not for this collaboration. This work is one of the most nourishing things I do, and I am grateful.


Status Update

Dear Most of the Internet:
this is not the Superbowl
or the World Cup, so
wash the face paint off
your social media accounts.
Sit down with one of "them"
face to face, knees touching,
and listen to their losses.
Then do it again, open heart
becoming bruised like a peach.
This is called compassion:
feeling-with, the center
of feeling we call the heart
constantly vulnerable.
I don't want to hear anything
from people who mourn
only one set of children.
Likewise if your answer is
"get rid of all of them,"
go to the back of the line
and think about your choices.
Is your status update helping?
If not, go wash the dishes.
Or send a condolence note
to someone in your community
who just lost a parent. Or
practice on Duolingo
and get one word closer
to understanding
someone different from you.


Choose

Sometimes Mitzrayim
is easy to spot:

the cruel boss,
the relationship

that keeps you small.
Sometimes

the tight places
disguise themselves.

Choose wilderness.
Forget cucumbers and melons:

the Voice
is always calling.

The name of the game
is becoming.

Nowhere better
than ownerless here

to tend the fire
burning on the altar

of your heart,
never to go out.


Poem written in my parked car outside the synagogue waiting for the bomb squad to sweep the building again

My first thought:
every single time
you craven cowards
hit us with
false bomb threats
I will become
more visibly Jewish

though on reflection
what more could
I even do?
I mean c’mon
I already wear
a knit kippah
and hamsa earrings.

Anyone in town
who doesn’t know
what I am
isn’t paying attention.
And more importantly
you don’t get
to influence me.

I let my
freak flag fly
and I won't
lower my Jewishness
to half-mast.
If I listed
everything I love

about the Torah
the 613 mitzvot
our holy prayers
our holy days
our holy languages
we'd be here
all night long.

Four thousand years
won’t end now.
We’re still here.
We won’t stop.
You can't quench
this eternal light.
It always shines.

 


Soup

 


Christmas Lima beans are huge.
Speckled and swirled
in maroon and cream, compared
to chestnuts in festive coats.
Today they marry mirepoix:
red onion, orange carrot,
crisp celery. Six small potatoes.
Turkey bacon pretending to be ham,
rosemary from the window.
I cook them every year
at Chanukah, which is not
a pale imitation of anything.
Granted, we can't all agree
on the moral (fighting
assimilation? the persistence
of hope? being enough?) but
we kindle candles anyway.
I make Chanukah Lima Bean Soup
and what's in my stewpot
is always enough because
long before your guy
multiplied loaves and fishes
we had the amphora of oil
that lasted, like a phone
(for talking with God)
on its last legs that somehow
didn't run out of charge
and we're still here, refusing
to let our light go out.


Feel

It's all right to feel distracted.
There's a war going on. Well, two.
Also an insurgency somewhere, plus
the uneasy sense that there must be
more conflict in places you can't name.
It's okay that one of these hurts
more than the others do. No one

can feel equally every worldly grief.
Maybe you know someone who is fighting
or someone who was killed. You're
a degree or two of separation from
the horrors of the front lines. Or
there are no front lines, horrors
are everywhere. You're allowed to feel

whatever you feel, including of course
sad, despairing, furious, alone
panic-stricken, unable to breathe, 
unable to sleep or maybe to wake up,
knowing how many will never wake again.
Groceries still need to be bought,
laundry washed, assignments completed.

You may stop stock-still at the sink
washing produce, seized suddenly
by awareness of everyone without water
or food to wash in it. Remember
grief is sticky, like tape attaching
to itself and refusing to pull free
so every sorrow re-opens every other.

I want to say: kindle one candle
and breathe with its light! Inside you
the tempests will settle. But this
may not be true. I can't promise when
the grief will end. Bring light anyway:
our souls are God's candles, even when
we're not sure we still know how to shine.


Blue

Driving home from my son's orchestra practice
in the dark of rural Vermont, mountains
a slightly different deep blue than sky:

sudden sense-memory of dancing with my father
at my wedding. Nat King Cole on Spotify,
probably a song our hired jazz trio crooned.

The marriage and my parents are both long-buried
but I remember my father healthy and strong,
his arms around me, the crisp sheen of his tux.

I wish I could have that back. My parents,
and how everything seemed possible, for all
whom I love. The griefs I didn't yet know.


Count

 

It is day 42
of this terrible count

but every day
the same qualities

-- anguish
within anguish.

At Shemini Atzeret
time stopped

just as we prepared
ourselves to turn

from Torah's end
to new beginnings.

The new month
never began.

Grief's fires
are still burning,

blood still crying
out from the ground.

 


 

Today's daily Ha'aretz email had the subject line, "What you need to know -- Israel at war: Day 42." That's what sparked today's poem: the realization that we're in another kind of Omer count, one where the only harvest I can see is grief. 

May the coming Shabbat bring respite and hope to all.


Foretaste

Last week I added wheat flour.
My son had asked for challah rolls
for his lunchbox. My mother's voice
in my mind's ear tsked to think
of all that white bread. Besides,
I reasoned, shouldn't I save
the best loaves for Shabbat
so he'll want to make motzi
on Fridays the minute he's home?
The rolls were fine. More heft
than usual, and stiffer -- still
better than most of what we buy.
This week I said screw it, made
a double batch of the real deal.
Life is short. I learned today
the wife of a friend of a friend
died without warning. When it comes
to obits, the newspaper runs over.
If he gets a foretaste of Shabbes
amidst the din of the cafeteria
is that really so bad? I could use
some Shabbat when I read how
that man called his opponents vermin.
May these knots of pillowy dough
soothe the shudder that word
sends down my Jewish spine
on this brief November day.

 

 

 

[H]is opponents vermin. Learn more at Forbes. (Content warning, Hitler.)


Unknowing

Can we pray for rain yet?
Has time stopped?

Are we still family
even if we disagree?

Where is everyone else
in this cloud of unknowing?

Who owns poetry?
What does belong mean?

Why fear ambiguity?
Where do we draw the line?

How has it been so long?
Where is the sky crying?

Why do people act like justice
and peace are opposites

when I know they are one coin
featuring God's own face?

Could the old maps be wrong?
Can we imagine new ones?

What if all I know is tears?
Who cares what I think I know?

What gives me the right?
How do I shake despair?

Is winning zero-sum?
Is anything okay?


Attack

Content warning: words and quotations from recent Israel / Gaza news stories.

 

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Attack

 

Phrases that render
us breathless, chest
compressed in an iron vest,
a non-exhaustive list:

charred bodies
music festival
hostage video
death toll

under rubble
collective punishment
blood-spattered
settler-colonialist

"From the river
to the sea"
"I will stab you
and slit your throat"

We are all heart,
raw and beating.
Moral injury
doesn't leave a scar.

 


 

"From the river to the sea." Source.

"I will stab you..." Source

 

A question for my fellow poets, and/or for those who have poetry opinions. Does the use of another color "work" in this poem? Would italics work better? Would it be better not to set those stanzas apart at all? 

And a note to all: if the news or social media are giving you panic attacks, please limit your consumption. This suffering does not help anyone, and it diminishes our capacity to pursue healing and justice wherever we are.

Here's a prompt from the Jewish Studio Project that offers an outlet for emotions and reactions when the news becomes more than we can bear: Art-Making as a Form of Prayer and Nervous System Regulation.


Tea

 

I measure the tiny cubes by the fistful:
brunoise of dried apple and crystallized ginger
that steep to an infusion of hibiscus pink.
Almost November and our skies
are getting a jump on the season,
featureless grey through newly-bare trees.
This is the brightest tea I have.

I remember the man behind the counter
who dropped a dry spoonful into each waiting palm,
the wall of spice jars like stained glass.
I came home with a tiny flagon of rosewater,
a quart of zaatar, a giant bag of apple tea.
I wonder if he's okay now.
I wonder if anyone is.


Why poetry matters (now)

Buried-barenblatPoetry and liturgy and art work differently than essays or arguments do. They can reach us in different ways than prose does.

Pastorally, I think art and prayer can meet a need that discursive forms don't / can't meet. Arguments call forth more arguments, and that doesn't interest me, especially now amidst so much suffering. 

Poetry and liturgy and art can also hold multiple meanings. Jewish tradition has beautiful teachings about God's speech being polysemic (saying multiple things simultaneously). I've been thinking about how prayer and art can function like that too.

Multivocality is part of the point. No prayer or poem or artwork will be understood in exactly the same way by everyone who reads or prays or views it. For me that's an important value right now. I need words and images that can hold multiple meanings and valances.

Anyway: all of this is why I've been grateful to my fellow builders at Bayit over the last couple of weeks. Much online conversation about Israel and Gaza feels fruitless to me, echo chambers talking past each other. And I'm simultaneously drawn to refresh news websites constantly to see what new horror may be unfolding, and aware that so doing doesn't actually help anyone (and might harm me.)

But a few days after the Hamas incursion into southern Israel I reached out to the Liturgical Arts Working Group and asked if there were interest in collaborating on an offering, and the answer was an immediate and fervent yes. So we brainstormed, we drafted, we commented and workshopped, we revised, and when all of that work was done I curated a flow through what we had co-created.

The collaborators on this artistic and prayerful response span the gamut from Reform to Orthodox. Some of us are mystics, others are rationalists. Our Judaisms are not the same. Our relationships with that beloved land and its peoples are not the same.  In this we mirror the Jewish community writ large. That feels important to me, too. We are different and we are part of the same whole.

Find the new offering of liturgy, poetry, and artwork from Bayit here, as downloadable PDF chapbook and as google slides suitable for screenshare:

 

Our Collective Heartbreak

 

(And for those who need the above poem in plaintext, instead of as an image, here it is.)

 

Buried

I can't even wish
for a time machine --
we‘d argue
which fork in the road.

The blood of beloveds
cries out from the ground.
Every bent and broken body
was someone’s beloved.

If I say
we’re more alike than not,
all our hearts are shattered
someone will disagree, but

how can I not grieve
with every bereft parent,
most treasured hope
now buried.

 

R. Rachel Barenblat - originally published at Bayit

 


Rejoice / Fragile

וְשָׂמַחְתָ / Rejoice

My door is open. Will you enter?
Taste the air, heady and fragrant --

limned with honeyed autumn light
and wet with morning dew.

Let me wrap around you
like a cloud, like an embrace.

Stay with me just like this.
Joy expands to fill everything.

Fragile

I see how fragile everything is
around you, how tenuous
any peace. Reasons for sorrow
pile up like fallen leaves.
Feel my heart touching yours,
enfolding yours.
I'm here with you where you are
under this roof that lets in rain.

 

I've been working on these two Sukkot poems in tandem. Sukkot for me evokes both fragility (the sukkah begins falling apart as soon as it's created; every life is a sukkah, fragile and fleeting; God knows I've sat with sorrow in the sukkah at times) and joy (Torah tells us to rejoice in our festivals; this is zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing; on Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day, God calls us to linger a little longer in joy.) These poems are somewhat in the mode of Texts to the Holy, though I leave it to you to decide who is speaking, and to whom. They appear above with accompanying images (and alt-text for screenreaders). Below are the two poems as plain text.

 

Fragile

I see how fragile everything is
around you, how tenuous
any peace. Reasons for sorrow
pile up like fallen leaves.
Feel my heart touching yours,
enfolding yours.
I'm here with you where you are
under this roof that lets in rain.


וְשָׂמַחְתָ / Rejoice

My door is open. Will you enter?
Taste the air, heady and fragrant --

limned with honeyed autumn light
and wet with morning dew.

Let me wrap around you
like a cloud, like an embrace.

Stay with me just like this.
Joy expands to fill everything.


Ready or not

The Torah table's in place. The chairs are arranged, and the music stands, like one-footed angels. The microphones, angled just so. The Torahs are wearing white holiday clothes. Prayerbooks wait in tidy stacks. Rolls of stick-on nametags sit beside baskets of printed holiday bracelets. The piano is tuned. The slide decks are ready. The sermons are ready. The blog posts are ready. My white binder of sheet music sports a rainbow of marginal tabs, colorful stepping stones through each service. As for my soul? Just now a spoonful of honeycake batter called her back from distraction, saying: ready or not here we go.


Impulse buys

In early spring it's wild ramps,
dark blades of onion-scented grass.

Then come the fairytale eggplants.
On the cusp of fall, tiny plums.

In winter I splurge on clementines
though citrus won't grow here, at least

not yet. Sometimes I treat myself
to marzipan at Christmastime, though

almond trees are struggling.
We're running out of groundwater.

How long until the memory of coffee beans
will be implausible as the days

when silvery cod were so plentiful
we walked across their backs to shore? 

 


 

 

America Is Using Up Its Groundwater Like There's No Tomorrow, New York Times

Can New England's Cod Fishing Industry Survive?, The Guardian

A Future Without Coffee?, Inter-American Development Bank

 


Find

If I had any pull with God, everything you need
would appear right now in front of you.
A door would open and inside it
a rose-strewn path, the yearned-for embrace.
I’d take the broken pieces of the afikomen
and restore them as if by magic.
But that isn’t how it works. God isn’t
a diner waitress saying what can I get you, hon?
That’s why our sages taught: a clay vessel
is purified when it breaks and is glued.
A human heart, charged with a lifetime’s losses
becomes real when lovingly mended.
All I can do: ask God to cradle your heart
in Her own hands and make you whole.

 

I had actually forgotten that I'd written this poem until someone shared this image on the site formerly known as Twitter. As soon as I read it, I remembered what was on my mind and heart when I wrote it. I had to search on my hard drive to date it, though -- I wrote it in spring of 2015, earlier than I thought. Looks like it was originally written in couplets, though I also like the shape that someone gave it in this image. (There's a slight transcription error in line 8, but I'm honored that someone liked the poem well enough to share it this way, even without the original punctuation and italics.) It's not exactly a sonnet, in terms of rhyme or meter, though it's inspired by the movement of a Petrarchan sonnet -- eight lines, a turn, then six lines. My favorite line is still, "God isn't / a diner waitress saying: what can I get you, hon?" That's not how I understand prayer to work, even petitionary prayer. Sometimes I can't help wishing it worked that way, though. I would order so much wholeness and healing and sweetness and fulfillment of hope. 


Pursue




The cat can tell the moment I'm awake.
He purrs because he knows breakfast will come.
It's dark: I'm not so thrilled to be alert
this rainy Tuesday dawn, brain sputtering
on far too little sleep, running on fumes.
Next time the former president is indicted
for racketeering I shouldn't stay awake
refreshing headlines, waiting for the news.
Of all the things that don't belong in poems --
though justice does, blindfold and sword and scales.
This week our Torah portion is called Judges.
(I cannot make this up.) Too on the nose?
"Justice, justice" -- Moses said it twice.
I live in hope. What else is there to do?

 

 

 

This week's Torah portion: Shoftim.

 

1581501940610

Lady Justice. You go, girl.


After the funeral

 

Rain taps on the roof like quiet hands.
So much softer than clods thudding
on a plain pine box.

Once everyone is gone
they take away the green tent
open on all sides, the worst chuppah.

The words wash away, but
I'll never forget
who rolled up his sleeves to finish shoveling.

 


 

In Jewish tradition, everyone present at an interment shovels some earth onto the casket. It is considered one of the last acts of lovingkindness we can do for the person who has died. 

I do remember, very clearly, who picked the shovel back up and helped us truly finish burying my parents after everyone else had taken a ceremonial turn. I wonder whether every funeral I conduct from now on will always bring those memories to mind.