Rhythm

Heart2

 

 

The sea is good medicine after a heart attack. This is how you do it, heart. Listen to this unceasing rhythm.

Flowing in, pouring out. Pushing and pulling. Kissing the shore, then dancing away.

 

 

Like Shabbes

followed by week

followed by Shabbes

followed by week

forever and ever.

 

 

Slipper shells and pebbles of quartz and granite tumble against the shore.

Then pull away. Then return.

 

 

A distant seawall marks the horizon.

The tug and release pulls at my ankles, shifting the ground beneath my feet.

Months from now there will still be grains of sand in my car.

 

 


Lake

Bend low, dipping
until my fingers
skim the warm water
near the surface.

This syllable
means death in Hebrew
but let's prolong
hope's steady drip.

A tor rises
from the hillside:
aspiring only
to keep existing.

Listen to the trill
of cricket opera
as my little boat
glides on.

Not certain, but maybe
something trails behind,
a string dragging
lines across the lake.

And you, hovering
over the face
of the waters
like a mother bird.

 


The list of medications I am now taking is long, and their names can sound like a foreign language. Scanning my meds, I remembered a poetry technique from my time at Bennington -- "translating" words into English (seeking out homophones, more or less), and then using that somewhat random assemblage of words to spark a poem. This poem arose out of my list of meds in that way.


Magazine

 


The pages of my magazines
are smudged with sriracha
and spattered with schmaltz.

They fall open naturally
to roasted eggplant crosshatched
and crowned with tahini,

bright cubes of cantaloupe
punchy with ancho chile
and speckled with queso fresco.

But magazine can also mean
a chamber for holding cartridges
to feed automatically

into a gun, which reminds me
of the article I don't need
to re-read -- the one where

a radiologist describes
the slim silver line sketched
by an ordinary bullet,

versus the way
one fired from an AR-15
ripples waves of flesh

like a cigarette boat
traveling through
a narrow canal

turning any part of us
into smashed overripe melon,
nothing left to repair.

 


 

Roasted Eggplant With Caramelized Tahini, Milk Street

Chili Lime Melon Salad, Milk Street

What I Saw Treating the Victims from Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns, Heather Sher, The Atlantic


Don't Stop

Remember the timeline
made of soft colored felt?
Foot after foot of black:
the Big Bang, eventually stars. 

A band of yellow (planets form.)
Green for teeming plants.
Orange for the dinosaurs'
165,000,000 year reign.

At the end a tiny red line:
Neanderthals, Mesopotamia,
Toltecs, Industrial Revolution,
today's headlines. In that line

humans lift each other up
and tear each other down.
The dance has always been
two steps forward, one step back.

The arc of the universe doesn't
bend toward anything
unless we push and pull,
coax and cajole. Don't stop.

 

At the Judson Montessori school in San Antonio, where I went for preschool and first grade, there was a timeline of the universe made out of felt. I remember it like I remember lunchtimes listening to Ravel's "Bolero." The felt strip was maybe 4" wide, and many feet long, longer than I could count.

Mostly what I remember about the timeline now is the long stretch of black felt that signified the early history of the universe, and the tiny red line all the way at the right end that signified human history. (Kind of like this Kurtzgesagt video, but low-tech and tangible. It was the late 1970s, after all.)

That timeline has been coming back to me recently. How vast is the history of the universe. How tiny our human fraction of time. How much beauty, and how much horror, we've packed into the thin sliver of time when human beings have been alive on this earth. How much work we still have to do.


Not Knowing

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The only thing I know:
we are not "there" yet,
and I'm not sure where "there" is
or how we will feel
or with what we will serve.

It's scary not having a map
to safety. Scarier still
that some claim the plague
never happened, or the deaths
aren't important...

These years are wilderness
and sometimes I struggle to hear
the still small voice
calling me forth
from my armchair, calling me

into humble not-knowing
and into the splendor
of not making myself afraid.
This work isn't new, and
we won't complete it: that’s ok.

Yes, there were leeks
in the beforetimes. I miss
them too. But then I remember
not everyone got to eat
even then. We can do better.

It's all right to feel fear
as long as we put one foot
in front of the other.
There is no path to Sinai
other than this.




With what we will serve - see Exodus 10:26. The still small voice - see I Kings 19:12Not making myself afraid - After Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, והעיקר לא להתפחד כלל / the important thing is not to make oneself afraid. Humble…splendor - Two ways of translating הוד, the quality our mystics associate with this week. We won’t complete it - see Pirkei Avot 2:16. There were leeks - see Numbers 11:5.

 

Originally published as part of Step by Step: Omer 5782, the collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group for this year's Omer journey. Find that collection here:  Step by Step: Omer 5782 at Bayit.


Hineni / Here I Am

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Here I am
ready and willing
to hear your voice

in the golden fire
that tips the willow trees
with spring sunlight --

to breathe your fragrance
on my fingers
kissed by rosemary --

to feel you with me
night and day
with every heartbeat.

You are becoming.
I want to become
worthy to walk with you.

I'm taking off my shoes,
exposed feet vulnerable
on shifting sand.

My heart is bare too:
ready to hear
and be changed.

 


 

Here I am -  הנני / Hineni is Moses' response to God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:4).

Ready and willing - As in the blessing before counting the Omer, "Here I am, ready and willing..."

You are becoming. - The Name that God gives to Moses at the bush is אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am becoming what I am becoming." (Exodus 3:14)

I'm taking off my shoes - See Exodus 3:5. (See also Remove the habits...)

 

 

This poem was written in preparation for Shavuot. Here are a few others:


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.


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.


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.


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.


Through

 


"You're home from the hospital," we prompt
our father, back in assisted living.
"No I'm not," he insists. "This isn't home."
I wonder which house he's remembering.
He thinks he's somewhere temporary.
In the end, does the body feel
as extraneous as the oxygen tank
he keeps forgetting he's tethered to?
But there's country music at happy hour
and he tells himself stories
that turn his nurses into old friends.
He knows he's somewhere temporary.
A mezuzah gleams on the final door.
We don't know when he'll go through.

 


The Gifts - video

One of the best things about sharing creativity online is when other creative folks make something beautiful and new, arising out of / inspired by / in conversation with something that I created.

Like this right here, created by two longtime blogfriends:

The Gifts from Allan Hollander on Vimeo.

The audio recording is by Allan Hollander, and the animation is by Alison Kent.

The poem was originally published in my first book-length collection of poetry, 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011). If you don't have a copy, I hope you'll consider picking one up wherever fine books are sold. 


First of February

I’m driving south past rock faces
where springs seep in summer
fixed now in ice, unmoving, opaque.

Snowy hilltops pink
with morning light, but
route seven curves in shadow

striated with sudden sun
where the hills gap
and let light through

like your memories
of mom, of me, of where you are --
here, and then gone.


Tending


I tend a botanical garden.
Here jungle trees stretch
tall as I can see, dripping
with trailing lianas
that dip into still pools.

Over there, soft dark podzol,
topped with towering taiga spruce.
In between: a small field
of sunflowers lifting
bright faces to the sky.

I've started keeping bees.
I watch them dance from flower
to flower, then meander dizzy
back to their hives. Honey jars
line up like amber trophies.

In my son's Minecraft world
there is no pandemic.
No one spits at nurses
or lies about elections.
No one's father has dementia.

My son thinks I'm playing
for his sake. I build
shul after shul, and in each
I pray for a world
where evil vanishes like smoke

like the mumbling zombies
who go up in flames
every time the blocky sun rises,
gilding the open hills
and endless oceans with light.