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.


The well


It's not that the well's run dry.
The walk feels too far. It's uphill
in the snow both ways, and
who has the strength to carry
those dangling buckets balanced
on their shoulders now? I'll stay
on this secondhand chair, wrapped
in my mother's holey shawl.
Make another cup of tea, stay quiet.
Grief sits with me by the fire.
Out the window, tiny birds track
hieroglyphics across the icy ground.

 


 

Originally this poem had a couplet about the 5.49 million COVID deaths worldwide (so far.) I removed it; it feels too direct, it belongs in an essay and not a poem. But as a Jew I'm always mindful of the number 6,000,000, and it's horrifying that we're creeping up on that number of COVID deaths. All of which is to say: if grief is your companion by the fire these days, you are not alone. 


Announcing From Narrow Places

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Co-creating new liturgy for these difficult times is one of the things that has brought me spiritual sustenance over the last eighteen months. I'm honored to have convened this extraordinary group of artists, liturgists, and poets, rabbis and laypeople alike, and I'm humbled by the knowledge that our work has uplifted hearts and souls in many places.

I hope you'll pick up a copy of this book, and I hope that what's in it will sustain you.

Now available for $18 -- From Narrow Places: liturgy, poetry and art of the pandemic era from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Featuring work by Trisha Arlin, R. Rachel Barenblat, Joanne Fink, R. Allie Fischman, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz PhD, Steve Silbert, R. Jennifer Singer, and Devon Spier.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL, writes,

For too many, prayer is a vending machine experience and so unsurprisingly it no longer works. And then there are the poets and liturgists in this heart opening collection From Narrow Places who know prayer is a powerful way of consciously surrendering to the mystery and exquisite bittersweetness of Life. This collection of prayers will inspire and enchant you – the real job prayer is supposed to get done.

And Rabbi Vanessa Ochs, professor at University of Virginia and author of Inventing Jewish Ritual, writes,

From Narrow Places gives language and imagery to the Jewish spiritual creativity that is still holding us up through the pandemic. I pray that speedily in our days we will look back at this volume as a testimony to how Jews of one era weathered a crisis and emerged even stronger. For now, it chronicles how the richness of Jewish living, full and fluid, is holding us up in these challenging days. I will confess: each page unlocked doors to my unexamined disappointments, sorrows and even deep joys. Many tears, but good ones.


Destination

This time in the black Suburban
leading the hearse

and the parade of blinking cars
I remember the drive

to the cemetery in San Antonio
the day we buried Mom.

I don't think I'd ever been
on those roads before, or

if I had, they were different
from this new vantage.

So many switchbacks and turns
past small houses, yards dotted

with pecan and crepe myrtle trees
though nothing was blooming.

After today's burial
my friend the undertaker

asks about the meditation labyrinth
behind the synagogue.

It's a contemplative practice,
I explain. It's not a maze

where it's easy to get lost.
There's only one path.

Take your time, notice
where your footsteps land.

We don't know how or when,
but we all know the destination.

 

 

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. 

I should also mention Walking the Labyrinth by my friend and colleague R. Pamela Wax, a new collection of beautiful poems of grief and transformation.


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?