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? 

Spring

When twigs swell
and begin to bud

and leaves emerge
chartreuse and tender

I'm proclaiming
what I nurtured

in secret silence
through the long winter

and sleep's cold blur.
Golden light,

I missed you so much
it hurt. I answer

your beauty
with my own,

vulnerable
and shivering.

My yearning for you
is prayer.


 

I originally titled this draft "The tree speaks," but that felt pretentious. Who am I to imagine I know what a tree is thinking?

When I sit at my desk in my study, there are several trees in view of my window. One, some kind of maple, has begun to leaf in deep red. Two others have begun to leaf in the implausible chartreuse that I think of as the truest sign of northern spring.

New leaves seem so fragile and tender to me, especially knowing that there's a forecast of snow here tomorrow. 

The end of this poem bears the imprint of this week's Baal Shem Tov text study with my Bayit hevre. We studied a beautiful text from the Besht arising out of parashat Tazria, which culminated in the idea that the deepest yearnings of our hearts are themselves prayer. 


Third Pesach Without You

You never removed leaven.
(Salt, sugar, and oil: sure,
but that was different.)

This year the work of
finding every last crumb
is daunting. I take respite

in the seder prep I know
you used to do, polishing
the silver until it gleamed.

Okay, let's be real, you
assigned it to the housekeeper,
but your table shone.

Humming seder psalms,
I rub silver polish into
the pitcher we used for

pouring water on our hands
when we returned from
your funeral. I'll fill it

with ice water, and
your small silver creamer
with our salt water tears.


Removed leaven. Many Jews remove all leaven (or leaven-able material) from our homes during the seven days of Pesach.

Pouring water on our hands. There's a tradition of placing a pitcher outside a shiva home so that when mourners return from the burial, so that we can ritually wash our hands before entering.

Salt water tears. One of the ritual items on the seder table is salt water, representing the tears of our ancestors during slavery. 

This poem is (yet) another in the vein of Crossing the Sea, the collection of poems I wrote during the first year of mourning my mom. It was published in December by Phoenicia Publishing (thanks Beth!) and is available wherever books are sold. 


Napkins

Mom, I'm using the cocktail napkins
you gave me when I moved out
on my own, simple and grey
with my single name in red, an
echo of the ones you ordered

when I married.
They've been on a shelf
this long pandemic year, but
it's another COVID birthday: time
to celebrate I made it through,

at least so far -- even vaccinated
the virus could strike. This year
I learned the word anosmia.
I breathe deep beside the coffee pot:
I can't take scent for granted.

I still wish I could text you
the seder menu I'm planning,
a photo of the spring flowers
a friend brought me
so my table would shine.

 


 

This poem is another in the vein of Crossing the Sea, the collection of poems I wrote during the first year of mourning my mom. It was published in December by Phoenicia Publishing (thanks Beth!) and is available wherever books are sold. 


The virus was distant, the virus was here

The virus was distant, the virus was here.
We learned new language: quarantine, lockdown
bewildered by mourning we didn't see coming.
One hundred thousand deaths: unthinkable.

We learned new language: quarantine, lockdown,
how to be real while together apart.
Two hundred thousand deaths, unthinkable.
Opened our Zoom screens on the Shabbes table.

How to be real while together apart:
singing and grieving in two-by-two boxes,
opening Zoom screens on the seder table.
Touch tzitzit to webcam: is Torah there?

Singing and grieving in two-by-two boxes
and serving with all of our fears and our wailing,
touching tzitzit to webcam, finding Torah there.
What gets in the way of the work is the work

so we serve with all of our fears and our wailing.
with our digital tools and inadequacy.
What gets in the way of the work is the work.
Pandemic feels like a new face of Mitzrayim.

With our digital tools and inadequacy
we sit with the trauma, the sirens, the losses.
Pandemic feels like a new face of Mitzrayim.
We ache to lift from constriction to freedom.

We sit with the trauma, the sirens, the losses --
the journey to Pesach begins where we are.
Feel ourselves lift from constriction to freedom.
Someday we'll dance at the shore of the sea.

The journey from COVID begins where we are.
The vaccines were distant. Soon they'll be here.
Someday we'll touch on the shore of the sea,
ready for morning we can almost see coming.


 

Written for the Lunchtime Program Acknowledging the Covid-19 Anniversary at the Academy for Jewish Religion (NY), where I am blessed to serve as an adjunct instructor.


March funeral

The hearse got stuck
in the mud-snow.

I watched from graveside
as they tried reverse

then pushing --
finally backing down

to approach
from the other side.

Mourners in
inappropriate footwear

struggled in icy mud.
I thought of Mom --

her yahrzeit this week.
She died before covid

before masks and distancing,
before half a million dead.

Would she understand
how everything feels

uphill, our wheels
spinning in muddy slush?

Like the hearse
all we can do

is retreat, bearing
grief's heavy load.

 


Scallions

The scent
of this covid year:
sour scallion-water
in the kitchen window,

the tail-ends
of green onions
trying to miracle
fresh green from

tap water and sun.
When it catches
in my throat
I choke, then

remember
if my sense of smell
still works,
how lucky

I am.

 


The lot of one year. (It's been a lot, this one year.)

Purim is almost upon us -- the last Jewish holiday that most of us celebrated in person last year, before the pandemic started keeping us apart. It's a tough anniversary. A year since we started staying apart to protect each other. It feels like forever. We celebrate Purim with costumes and masks -- masks, for sure, mean something different now than they ever did before. We celebrate topsy-turviness -- but what does it mean to do that when our whole world feels turned upside-down? 

Those were some of the questions animating the members of Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. I think you'll see them in our fifth collection of prayer and poetry and artwork, which we just released today. My main contribution (aside from convening the group!) is a poem about Esther and us, quarantine and saving lives and loss. I also wrote one of the short pieces in our seven-part "Last Purim" series, reflecting on what Purim was like "before covid," a year (or maybe a lifetime) ago. 

For me I think R. Sonja K. Pilz's poems are the most poignant and powerful this time around -- the one about her baby thinking masks are ordinary, and the litany with the refrain of "twelve months / or more." But honestly, everything in this collection moves me, and I'm grateful to be collaborating and co-creating with this exceptional group of artists, liturgists, and rabbis. You can read excerpts and download the PDF here at Builders Blog: The Lot of One Year - Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Purim 2021.