New poetry, liturgy, and art for Chanukah

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I'm delighted to be able to announce that Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group has just released a new collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for this year's Chanukah. 

It's available as a downloadable PDF and also as illuminated google slides suitable for screensharing. You can read excerpts of the prayers/poems and download a PDF, and preview the google slides and access those, here at Builders Blog: Rolling Darkness Into Light

This collaborative creative work is one of the most spiritually and creatively nourishing things I get to do. I hope that what we've co-created will speak to you.

This offering includes work by Trisha Arlin, Joanne Fink, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz PhD, and R. David Zaslow. (And also me.) Click through and read it now.


Local Call

 


I talk to you all the time --
there's a portal in my bedroom,
that glassy silvered frame:
us on a boat in the harbor
on the Fourth of July. Plus
another one upstairs (you
and dad beside an autumnal tree)
and the one from your eightieth,
where you're wearing off-white
and we're all arrayed around you
like lilies in a bouquet.
But walking into a cemetery
feels like plugging in, the
internet of souls humming
all around me. And this
exposed rectangle of earth
is just like the one where
two thousand miles away we buried
you. While I sang El Maleh today
one of my hands was twined
in this scarf you gave me,
its silky burgundy tassels
tucked tastefully into the neck
of my sober black suit. I hear
your voice every morning
when I enter my son's room.
As I murmur to him and flip on
the light, you're belting
"Good Morning To You" with
young Debbie Reynolds flair.
Today in this gold autumn sun
you're almost here, singing to me.

 

 

If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia. It's my collection that moves through the first year of mourning my mom. 


Rainy day

Last night the rain woke me. I spared a moment to feel grateful for the roof, then went back to sleep. When my alarm sounded the world was swaddled in cloud. I won't relish the time change -- the "fall back" side of the coin -- though I'll be grateful to have more light in the mornings, at least for a while.

I read in Milk Street that in Korea it's traditional to eat pajeon (scallion pancakes) on rainy days. The sound of the batter sizzling in the pan is said to evoke the patter of rainfall. I've never been to Korea, and the prospect of traveling feels implausible now, but look: here's a recipe. Almost like travel.

Two funerals to prepare for, this week. I say this out loud to one of the photos of Mom that I brought back from her house after her funeral. The photo doesn't answer, of course, but thinking of Mom makes me think of clothing, which reminds me that I need to go to the dry cleaner's before Thursday.

You can't go wrong with a black suit, Mom would say. She'd travel with black clothes because they are versatile. One day she'd add her garnet beads, another day a bright scarf. She'd be drinking tea, if she were here. For Mom, cold rainy days were for making soup. Minestrone, maybe, or tortilla soup.

I like to leaf through her recipes, though I don't cook most of them. I brought two tins of Spanish paprika back with me after her funeral, though, and I like cooking with that. It's faded; I should use more of it than recipes call for. But I don't want to use it up. Another tether that I don't want to cut.

Flavors


Tight

I have to be my own Jewish mother
even without a stainless soup pot.

No: I need to be
a better mother to myself --

one who wouldn't say
"put on a happy face!"

Reasons to weep
are as numerous as the stars.

Every bodyworker knows
the muscle that cries out

is the victim: something else
has tightened into immobility.

But when it's the heart
that cries out --

how can I delaminate
years of fused-together sorrows?


Beginning

Beginning
created God
heavens and
earth.

Void
and unformed
topsy-turvy
darkness.

That's
us, too:
starting over
uncertain

will
our roads
be rebuilt,
repaired

public
health and
child care
funded

or
will compromise
falter, founder
splinter

like
the chaos
that preceded
creation

when
with beginnings
God created
us?

 



Time

It's time to bring the potted plants indoors.
It's time to find the wooden crate of socks

and figure out which ones are pairs. To use
the bundt pan Mona handed down to me

for apple cake; to look up how I roasted
delicata squash last year. It's time

to pause the New York Times again, to frame
the tweet from Kelli Agodon that says,

"Write poetry instead of doomscrolling."
It's time to take the sukkah down, return

the decorations to their bin, and watch
crabapples reddening across the field.

It's time to place my trust in what endures,
seek sleepy comfort in the growing dark.

 


 

Apple cake. Apples and honey are a symbolic food at the Jewish new year. (I'm partial to Deb's mom's apple cake.)

The tweet from Kelli Agodon. See it here.

What endures. See my most recent blog post.


Anew

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Here’s the thing: the year begins anew
even in the worst of times. The leaves
will turn and fall and then they’ll grow again.
And sometimes we’re afraid, and we can’t know
what choice to make to keep anyone safe.
Uncertainty’s a bear. All we can do
is seek out sweetness everywhere we may
and work to fix what brokenness we find.
The good news is we’re not in this alone.
We’ll help each other hope when light seems dim
and lift the sparks that darker days reveal.
We’ll love each other fiercely: in the end
there is no greater work that we can do.
We who survive will help each other heal.

 

This is the poem I sent to friends and family as an Elul message / new year's card this year. (It's also part of an ad hoc series, along with this sonnet.) You can find all of my new year's poems here.


Sonnet for our second COVID Rosh Hashanah

I don't want to reckon with my choices:
feels like that's all we've done for 18 months
(should I mask, is this safe, what if
we meet outside and never breathe together?)
I don't want to query who will live
and who will die, who by wildfire and who
by flooded subway, who intubated and alone
and who will have enough while others lack.
I just want all of us to thrive: our hearts
at ease, our hopes in reach at last.
Come close to me, God. Comfort me with apples.
Remind me the world is born again each year --
even if I'm not ready, even if this year
I'm not sure I know the words to pray.

 

 

Reckon with my choices. The lunar month of Elul, which begins in a few days, launches the season of teshuvah, repentance and return; the inner work of this time is looking at who we are and who we've been, where we've missed the mark, how we can repair what's broken in our relationships with each other, the world, and our Source. Who will live / and who will die, who by fire and who by water... The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we recite on Rosh Hashanah, asks this question. (Here's a post I wrote about it a while back if you want to know more.) Wildfires and flooded subways come from recent news. Come close to me, God. Tradition holds that during the month of Elul, "the King is in the Field" -- the transcendent sovereign aspect of God, usually distant from us, is with us / near us / accessible to us.  Comfort me with apples. From Song of Songs 2:5. Apples dipped in honey are also a traditional food for Rosh Hashanah -- "sweet foods for a sweet year." The world is born again. One of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah reminds us that hayom harat olam, "today the world is born." On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the ongoing renewal of creation.


We are animals too

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God is as close now
as blood pulsing in our veins,
that animal rhythm.

Our bellies know animal hungers一
a salt imbalance disguised
as a yen for Pringles,

or the way stone fruits
or avocados or ceviche
can be medicine.

We make teshuvah
not despite our animal nature
but with it:

with bodies that crave
and hearts that yearn,
like God’s, know me!

No one teaches animals
to resent their bodies.
Show me how to love mine.

As Zohar reminds me,
there is no place
where God is not:

even my asthmatic lungs,
my animal being,
my imperfect heart.

 

[A]s blood pulsing in our veins. The Qur'an (Surah Qaf 50:16) teaches that God is as close to us as our own jugular. In Elul, according to R. Schneur Zalman of Liady, "the king is in the field," e.g. divine transcendence, usually inaccessible to us, becomes intimately present where we are. Like God’s, know me! One of my favorite mystical teachings holds that God birthed creation in order to be known. [N]o place / where God is not. From Tikkunei Zohar, לית אתר פניו מיניה / leit atar panui mineih, “there is no place devoid of God’s presence.”

This poem originally appeared in Rosh Hodesh Elul / New Year of the Animals, a collection of new poetry, liturgy, and artwork co-created by Bayit's liturgical arts working group. Find the whole collection here (available as a downloadable PDF and also as slides suitable for screenshare.)


Seaside Mah Tovu

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How good are your beach blankets,
O Yaakov --
your shaded pavilions, Yisrael!

And I, in Your great kindness
stand on packed sands
at the edge of Your sea.

Wholly One, I love Your house:
this place so drenched in Your presence
even overworked people feel it!

I bow into endless waves
(Your face, Your embrace)
and You wash over me.

And I -- I am my prayer.
In the rush of Your waters
reshape me like tumbled glass.

 


 

This poem riffs off of Mah Tovu, which you can find on the right-hand side of this two-page spread. For some wisdom about the prayer, here's a piece at ReformJudaism.org.

(And no, I didn't find all that seaglass -- or any seaglass! I found the photo on the internet. I've found a few shells and some smooth pebbles, though... and the seaglass felt like the right metaphor for the moment.)


How To

How to hold fear for so long
my shoulders learn a new shape.
How to watch numbers climb
higher, and then higher.
How to hold funerals
and kindergarten
over Zoom.

How to read subtle signals
via eyes alone.
How to re-grow scallions in water
because there might not be
more to buy.
How to feel our connections
though we’re apart.

How to sit
with unimaginable losses
even if they aren’t
our own, even if they are.
How to hold each other
when we can’t touch.
How to weep.

How to feel
everything that’s broken
—from mobile morgues
to the lies that fueled
shattered Capitol windows—
then ask the grief and fury
to drain away.

How to nurture
hope’s tiny tendrils
unfurling into flower
with every vaccination.
How to trust each other
take down our veils
and blink in unfamiliar sun.

 


This new poem for Tisha b'Av first appeared in Tisha b'Av 5781: Our Mourning Year, a new collection of poetry, liturgy, and artwork for our communal day of mourning, published by Bayit: Building Jewish. If you click on that link, you'll see excerpts from all of the poems and glimpses of one of the illustrations, and you can access either a PDF of the full collection or a google slide deck suitable for sharing online. I'm grateful to the poets, liturgists, rabbis, and artists who collaborate with me at Bayit and I'm humbled to be part of this offering. 


Revised: three poems for the shofar service

MALCHUYOT

What does it mean
to proclaim Your sovereignty?
Before the Big Bang, there was You.

We allowed habits to rule us.
Help us throw off that yoke
so our best selves may serve.

Help us surrender. 
Help us fall to our knees,
find home in Your embrace.

Help us be unashamed of yearning.
Strengthen our awe and our love
so our prayers will soar.



ZICHRONOT

God, remember us—
our good intentions
and our tender hearts.

Remember our ancestors
asking forgiveness
with the wail of the ram's horn.

Today again we open ourselves
to the calls of the shofar
crying, sleepers, awake!

Help us shed old memories
that no longer serve.
Help us remember You.



SHOFAROT

The shofar reminds us
of the ram in the thicket.
Where are we ensnared?

Its shatters complacency.
It wails with our grief,
stutters with our inadequacy.

The shofar cries out
I was whole, I was broken,
I will be whole again.

Make shofars of us, God!
Make us resonating chambers
for Your love.

 

 

These poems were first shared here in 2015. I've tightened and revised them here.


Finding you

 

I search
the four
chambers

pulsing in
black and
white

the septum
they said
might

be malformed
(but then
changed

their minds,
and even
though

one artery's
mostly blocked
there's

still, against
all odds, 
flow)

heart that
tries too
hard

and loves
too much,
can

you truly
be in
there

"as close
as my
heartbeat"

 


This poem arose during a silent amidah meditation at AJR mincha / afternoon services. Cantor Michael Kasper invited us not to try to reach out toward God, but instead to feel where God already is with/in us.


Bereaved

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Things that shouldn't exist
in the same world: the scent
of lilacs in bloom and the stench
of the "skunk water" I read about
on Facebook this morning.

I sit on my mirpesset, surrounded
by green: trees in leaf, willows
trailing graceful fringes, pots
of oregano, rosemary, mint.
So tranquil I could forget

global pandemic still rages,
India's cremation sites burning
around the clock. I could forget
bombs, rockets, mortar shells,
bereaved parents and orphaned children.

Once I start the list, it's hard
to stop. Uighurs in internment camps,
migrant children stripped
from their parents... more griefs
than grains of sand beside the sea.

Bereaved: from Old English bereafian,
to take away by violence. Mostly used
these last few centuries "in reference
to life, hope, loved ones,
and other immaterial possessions."

Immaterial, and essential.
I want to look away.
I can't look away.
If I forget you, humanity,
let my words unlearn how to flow.

 

 


Skunk water. See this FB post from Leah Solomon, chief education officer of Encounter

Mirpesset. Hebrew for balcony. See ba-shanah ha-ba'ah.

India's cremation sites. See 'Death is the only truth:' Watching India's Funeral Pyres Burn (NYT).

Uighurs in internment camps. See Their goal is to destroy everyone (BBC). Please heed the disturbing content warning at the top of the article.

Migrant children / stripped from their parentsSee Migrants separated from their children will be allowed in the US (NYT).

[I]n reference to life... See bereave (v).

If I forget you... See Psalm 137.


Hefker / ownerless

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This gorgeous illumination is by Joanne Fink; the poem is mine. 

As always, I'm humbled and honored to have midwifed this collection of new poetry, liturgy, and visual art into being -- and I know that my own poem is stronger for the collaborative workshopping, so I'm grateful for that too. 

You can read excerpts from everyone's beautiful work and download the collection here: Together, Becoming - Shavuot 2021 from Bayit.


Questions

  1. Did we make it?
  2. What can I do about India?
  3. Will it get that bad here again?
  4. Are we safe?
  5. Can I trust new CDC guidance?
  6. If I see someone without a mask, can I assume they're vaccinated?
  7. (What if they're an anti-vaxxer?)
  8. And what about kids?
  9. Did you see the article about the family that got their shots and flew to Hawai'i and then their eleven year old died of COVID?
  10. Do you know how old my child is?
  11. How does this new guidance change what we're planning at our synagogue?
  12. Is it too soon to make decisions about the High Holidays?
  13. What are the spiritual impacts of spending a year unable to sing with others when singing in harmony is the best way I know to encounter God?
  14. When we start gathering in person again, will people come? 
  15. Has my kid adjusted to eating lunch on a towel on the floor six feet apart from his schoolmates?
  16. Will I see my father again?
  17. Did we make it?
  18. Are we really on the other side?
  19. If we're two weeks vaccinated, are we really safe?
  20. If we're safe, then why do I feel so exhausted?
  21. After the long, isolated winter why does spring make me want to cry?
  22. After fourteen months of feeding myself, why am I staring at a pantry full of ingredients unable to muster the creativity to cook tonight?
  23. What are the spiritual impacts of spending fourteen months guarded against grief, determined to keep going, sacrificing human contact in order to protect each other from an invisible virus we might or might not have been carrying?
  24. Did we make it?
  25. When will there be time to grieve?