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.


Fix

Things I cannot fix,
an incomplete list:

armed militias.
Global pandemic.

The grief of staying apart
and unbearable yearning.

Rage at insurrectionists
and anti-maskers.

Things I can fix:
lunch for my child.

This winter stew, meat
from the freezer

and dried mushrooms
plumping in hot broth.

Warm speckled rye dough
pliant beneath my hands.

 


Interview at On Sophia Street

Banner-4-largerI met Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan when I was in rabbinical school, where she was one of my professors. These days I am honored to call her a colleague and friend. She recently visited my shul (via Zoom, of course) to share about her latest book, The Infinity Inside, a beautiful collection of essays and spiritual practices. 

She's also a blogger, and has been sharing her words at On Sophia Street for ten years. In celebration of her tenth blogiversary, she recently interviewed me for her blog (and will be interviewing two other spiritual bloggers -- subscribe to her blog to read those interviews too!) We talked about poetry, liturgy, spiritual practice, grief work, Crossing the Sea, and more. Here's a taste of our conversation:

Laura: You’re a life-long writer and a long-time blogger. Can you tell us a little bit about why you write? Do you see it as a spiritual practice?

Rachel: Writing is my most enduring spiritual practice. I’ve been writing my way through the world for as long as I can remember. Sometimes writing is a gratitude practice, a way of articulating to myself the things in my life for which I can honestly say modah ani, “I am thankful.” Sometimes writing offers a lens onto a tangled knot of thinking and feeling. Sometimes I look back at what I wrote and that gives me perspective on what’s constant and what changes.

EM Forster is reported to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” I love that. Writing, like prayer, is how I come to know myself... 

Read the whole interview here: Rachel Barenblat: poetry, liturgy, spiritual practice


Watching armed insurrection from afar

 

The lake has frozen.
Ice fishermen scatter,
tiny dark figures

making their way
across its flat
white expanse.

My heart pounds
gunfire
in my chest.

If the ice breaks
there is no one
to call.

 


 

I drove past a frozen lake this morning on my way to get my allergy shots. Every year I watch this lake freeze. Every year I watch the ice fishermen settle on the ice. Every year I spare a thought about the danger in what they're doing, especially when the ice is new. Right now it feels like our whole nation is on thin ice. 

 


 

If you are struggling with increased anxiety these days, you are not alone. Please reach out to a trusted clergyperson, a therapist, a friend, the national suicide prevention hotline or crisis textline. And reach out to people you know even if you're okay, because the people you know might not be. 


Count on

What I can
count on, when

democracy might be dying
at the hands of white men
 
and women waving
Confederate flags, wearing
 
Camp Auschwitz shirts,
brandishing zip ties:

the havdalah candle's
sizzle, plunged

into wine; the scent
of shankbones, simmering;

the song of Torah
where every sentence

culminates, with no
uncertainties;

the winter sun
lingering

just a little longer,
promising better days.

 


Seeds

I curl my fingers
into the thatch
inside the hollow.

Out come seeds
little teardrops
slippery and pale.

As they fall
the china bowl
rings like a bell.

 

 


 

These shortest days of the year are always a struggle for me. Like my mother before me, I count the days until the light will begin to increase. I practice finding sustenance in small things: in zesting an orange for cranberry bread, in cooking a new recipe, in turning squash seeds into a roasted snack instead of throwing them away as I would once have done. This pandemic winter, those coping mechanisms feel even more critical. There's so much I can't repair in this terrible and beautiful world. Sometimes it feels almost inappropriate to seek pleasure when there is so much suffering. In those moments I remind myself that I would honor no one by ignoring the little blessings I can find even in these times. May balm come to all who suffer, and may life's tiny sweetnesses help us through.


Windows

Once I compared daily prayer
to a chat window open with God
all the time. That was before.
Now the chat windows where I text,
the Zoom windows where we meet,
are as fervent as prayer:

the only way we can be together
anymore. The digital windows open
between my home (my heart) and yours --
they're what link us, together apart
like lovers with hands pressed
to far sides of thick glass.

Chanukah candles go in the window
to shine light into the world
to proclaim the miracle even
in dark times. We've all seen
the old photo, chanukiyah burning
small and defiant in the foreground

and on a building across the street
the swastika's hideous slash. I put
my lights each night in my window:
tiny candles visible to anyone
driving through the condo complex.
It's not brave like the rabbi in Kiel

in 1932, though more people hate us
today than I used to imagine. Still
these little lights declare
that hatred will not destroy us.
Let's be real: no one walks past
my window in the smalltown night

so I post a photo too on Facebook
scattering holy sparks
through every browser window
proclaiming the miracle
that we're still here, that
the light of our fierce hope still shines.

 

[Originally published in Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah, published by Bayit: Building Jewish. Click through to read excerpts and download the whole collection.]


Prayers, poems, and artwork for Chanukah

It's not like the Temple, sullied
by improper use and then washed clean
and restored to former glory.
This house is tarnished by familiarity.
Month after pandemic month I've circled
from bed to table to sofa to bed again.
I no longer see the mezuzah
on every door frame. Tonight
with one tiny candle I light another.
I want their little flames to galvanize
my hands to consecrate each room...

That's the beginning of a poem called "Rededication," which I wrote in collaboration with the other rabbis, writers, liturgists, and artists who are part of Bayit's liturgical arts working group

You can read all of "Rededication" on page 11 of our new collection for this difficult pandemic Chanukah. (I also have another prayer-poem in that collection, about candles in windows and Zoom...)

The collection is called Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah. I think it's a really beautiful collection, and I really hope you'll click through and download the PDF.

Here you'll find new liturgy for this pandemic Chanukah, evocative poetry, and stirring artwork, intended for use by individuals and communities across and beyond the denominational spectrum.

My collaborators and fellow builders on this project are Trisha Arlin, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, R. Jennifer Singer, Devon Spier, and Steve Silbert.

Find it here on Builders Blog: Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah. (You can also find it, along with our other liturgical offerings, at Bayit's Liturgical Arts for Our Times page.)


Looking for Water

 


1.

Isaac dug his father's wells anew.
This doesn't mean he just treaded old ground.

Avraham had plumbed the earth's deep wisdom.
Where his pick struck soil, compassion poured.

Isaac opened up his father's pipes
so kindness, long-delayed, could flow again.

In all who drank, a memory arose:
water, shared in the desert, saves a life.


2.

When Isaac's servants, digging in the wadi
found a spring, the herdsmen quarreled: "This is ours."

Frustrated, they named that place Contention.
He dug another, they fought again: Dispute.

How different are things now? Today, who drills
-- and who drinks only the infrequent rains?

What new name might we choose if we could build
a world where everyone gets enough water?


3.

Source of all, flow through us like the rains.
Turn the spigot of abundant blessing.

Teach us we won't die, parched and alone,
but live renewed like hillsides kissed with dew.

When we can share the stuff of which we're made,
what makes our earth the firmament's swirled blue,

then we will find the ample space we need
to share this earth as kin with all who thirst.

(And let us say: Amen.)

 


SOURCES

"Isaac dug his father's wells anew." Genesis 26:17.

"But when Isaac's servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac's herdsmen, saying, 'The water is ours. He named that well Esek, because they contended with him." Genesis 26:19-20

"And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah." Genesis 26:21

"In today's world, ask: / who may drill, who only gets the infrequent rains?" See The Gap in Water Consumption between Palestinians and Israelis, B'tselem 2013.

"He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, "Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land." Genesis 26:22

 

This poem arises out of this week's Torah portion. It was written in 2013 for a now-defunct blog called Palestinian Talmud, after one of the names given to the Talmud Yerushalmi. A reader alerted me to the fact that my link to this poem was a dead link, so I'm reposting it now.


Crossing the Sea

My mother and I had a complicated relationship. Over the first 43 years of my life we adored each other; we argued with each other; we delighted each other; we disappointed each other. Just now I had to look at a calendar to remind myself how old I was when Mom died: sometimes it feels like she's been gone for a long time, and sometimes it feels like she's still here. 

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time at all, you know that I'm an external processor. I "write my way through the hurricane." (Thanks, Lin-Manuel.) In rabbinical school I wrote Torah poems week after week. When I miscarried, I wrote poems as I sought healing. During my son's first year of life I wrote weekly poems chronicling his changes... and mine.

How else could I possibly respond to my mother's death? I keened and grieved and wept -- and wrote. When I was in my MFA program in my early 20s, she didn't like some of my poems; they felt too revelatory. Would she find these poems too intimate to be shared? I shared early drafts here anyway, because I needed to send the words out: into the world, if not to her.

Many of you wrote to me saying that the poems spoke to you and mirrored your experiences of loss. Over the course of the eleven months between her death and her unveiling, I wrote my way through how grief was changing me, and changing in me, until I reached the far shore of that particular sea. I will never cross it in that same way again, because one's mother only dies once.

And then, after the year was over, I sat down with a trusted friend and editor and asked: are these poems worth publishing in a less ephemeral form? Beth helped me see how the poems could be improved, and what was missing from the collection, and how to make the book more than the sum of its parts. This book is far better for her editorial hand, and I am grateful.

I am fiercely proud of this book of poems. It is a tribute to Mom, and a testament to how much she shaped me (and continues to shape me). It's a reminder that relationships can continue after death, and that time's alchemy brings subtle shifts. It's personal, because our relationship was only ours... and I think it's universal, too, because we all have mothers, and we all know loss.

If you knew Liana Barenblat, I hope you'll find her here. And if you didn't know my mom, I hope you'll find in these poems echoes of your own relationships, and maybe a roadmap for the mourner's path, that complex journey of grief and love, loss and healing. I'm so thankful to Beth Adams at Phoenicia for bringing this book to press, and for her cover art, which I love.

Introducing...

Crossing-500px_orig

Crossing the Sea - Phoenicia Publishing 2020

Special pre-order price $14.50 (US)
Regular price after Nov 30, $15.95

 

Heart-full, love-rich, rapt with intricate attention and memory, but never shirking the hard parts, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat shares a sequence of stunning poems  for her late mother. Her voice is honest as a tree.  This is an extremely moving book for anyone who has known grief,  and feels captivated by how the conversation goes on. 

–Naomi Shihab Nye, author of The Tiny Journalist and Transfer, among others

I knew Rachel’s mother. We came from the same small Texas town, ate the same mango mousse served in a fluted ring mold. Rachel captures the complexity of their relationship through similar telling descriptions and snippets of dialogue, then a miracle happens. My mother is there, too. Crossing the Sea moves past the personal as women readers identify and remember, laying these pebble poems on their own mothers’ stones.

— Nan Cuba, author of Body and Bread, winner of the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction

Rachel Barenblat’s poems open us to the heart of mourning: grappling with the loss of a parent, with whom our relationship was so close yet so complicated. She captures the tension between love and discord, the thrust and tug of distancing and reconciliation. She takes us with her on a winding path of grieving over the seasons of a year. Through that prism she refracts two lifetimes and three generations, rendering them with emotional honesty and insight. I was moved, I was brought back to my own loss, and I was brought a little closer to healing.

— Mark Nazimova, Jewish liturgist, New York City

Pre-order Crossing the Sea for $14.50 US now.

 


Out of joint

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It's unseasonably warm for western Massachusetts in November. Day after day the high reaches 75. Given climate change, has unseasonable lost its meaning? Last month when it snowed a little I moved my short-sleeved shirts into winter storage; now I'm taking them back out again. The time has changed, we've "fallen back," night falls early. There's something deeply disconcerting about early nightfall when it's this warm. The world feels out of joint. I think of the jokes we crack: "It's March 282nd," as though time stopped moving forward in its normal patterns when the pandemic began for us. I don't know how many days it's been since March. I don't want to count them: they feel lost. So much feels lost. This week we're all on tenterhooks again. Has democracy lost its meaning? The weather app tells me we'll be back to cold weather in a few days. I resolve to go outdoors today while I still can. My fears tell me they know what's coming. 


Psalm in the spirit of Minecraft

Because we combine
creation's building blocks:
andesite, birch, clay.

Because seeds will sprout
and we transform wheat
into bread worth blessing.

Because it's our job
to bring light
to dark places.

Because the only way
this world makes sense
is if we keep building.

Sometimes we turn around
and everything we tended
is broken. Still we repair

each shattered place,
growing new flowers
over the earth's wounds.

 


In an early week of the psalms class I'm teaching for clergy (via Bayit: Building Jewish), we read an excerpt from Psalm in the Spirit of Dragnet by Julie Marie Wade. Our conversation afterwards took us to all kinds of places, and one of the ideas it sparked in me was: what about a psalm in the spirit of Minecraft? I've been playing the game with my son since the pandemic began, and have been surprised at how satisfying I find it. For me there's something fundamentally hopeful about the game. And, of course, building is our root metaphor at Bayit. As an experiment, I read this poem aloud to my son without telling him the title, and he immediately recognized what I was doing, which makes me happy. Here's to more building. 


The day after

Beethoven's 7th,
all day, on repeat.
Because I need to know
there is meaning
in how we circle back
to this lament in minor mode.
I want to trust
the swell of grief
will give way to hope.

 


 

If you don't know the second movement of Beethoven's 7th symphony, you can hear it here.


Soup

I always forget how dried beans swell.
They start as tiny stones in my hand

but after an overnight salt water soak
they fill my red bowl to overflowing.

This week I revise them into posole --
it's meant to include hominy, but

in these pandemic times we all learn
to make do. I curl my tongue around

ancho and pasilla, remembering the music
of your lushly-swirled double ll's.

Raisiny peppers soften and come apart.
I want to blend into a chord like that.