Unknowing

Can we pray for rain yet?
Has time stopped?

Are we still family
even if we disagree?

Where is everyone else
in this cloud of unknowing?

Who owns poetry?
What does belong mean?

Why fear ambiguity?
Where do we draw the line?

How has it been so long?
Where is the sky crying?

Why do people act like justice
and peace are opposites

when I know they are one coin
featuring God's own face?

Could the old maps be wrong?
Can we imagine new ones?

What if all I know is tears?
Who cares what I think I know?

What gives me the right?
How do I shake despair?

Is winning zero-sum?
Is anything okay?


Attack

Content warning: words and quotations from recent Israel / Gaza news stories.

 

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*

 

*

 

Attack

 

Phrases that render
us breathless, chest
compressed in an iron vest,
a non-exhaustive list:

charred bodies
music festival
hostage video
death toll

under rubble
collective punishment
blood-spattered
settler-colonialist

"From the river
to the sea"
"I will stab you
and slit your throat"

We are all heart,
raw and beating.
Moral injury
doesn't leave a scar.

 


 

"From the river to the sea." Source.

"I will stab you..." Source

 

A question for my fellow poets, and/or for those who have poetry opinions. Does the use of another color "work" in this poem? Would italics work better? Would it be better not to set those stanzas apart at all? 

And a note to all: if the news or social media are giving you panic attacks, please limit your consumption. This suffering does not help anyone, and it diminishes our capacity to pursue healing and justice wherever we are.

Here's a prompt from the Jewish Studio Project that offers an outlet for emotions and reactions when the news becomes more than we can bear: Art-Making as a Form of Prayer and Nervous System Regulation.


Tea

 

I measure the tiny cubes by the fistful:
brunoise of dried apple and crystallized ginger
that steep to an infusion of hibiscus pink.
Almost November and our skies
are getting a jump on the season,
featureless grey through newly-bare trees.
This is the brightest tea I have.

I remember the man behind the counter
who dropped a dry spoonful into each waiting palm,
the wall of spice jars like stained glass.
I came home with a tiny flagon of rosewater,
a quart of zaatar, a giant bag of apple tea.
I wonder if he's okay now.
I wonder if anyone is.


Why poetry matters (now)

Buried-barenblatPoetry and liturgy and art work differently than essays or arguments do. They can reach us in different ways than prose does.

Pastorally, I think art and prayer can meet a need that discursive forms don't / can't meet. Arguments call forth more arguments, and that doesn't interest me, especially now amidst so much suffering. 

Poetry and liturgy and art can also hold multiple meanings. Jewish tradition has beautiful teachings about God's speech being polysemic (saying multiple things simultaneously). I've been thinking about how prayer and art can function like that too.

Multivocality is part of the point. No prayer or poem or artwork will be understood in exactly the same way by everyone who reads or prays or views it. For me that's an important value right now. I need words and images that can hold multiple meanings and valances.

Anyway: all of this is why I've been grateful to my fellow builders at Bayit over the last couple of weeks. Much online conversation about Israel and Gaza feels fruitless to me, echo chambers talking past each other. And I'm simultaneously drawn to refresh news websites constantly to see what new horror may be unfolding, and aware that so doing doesn't actually help anyone (and might harm me.)

But a few days after the Hamas incursion into southern Israel I reached out to the Liturgical Arts Working Group and asked if there were interest in collaborating on an offering, and the answer was an immediate and fervent yes. So we brainstormed, we drafted, we commented and workshopped, we revised, and when all of that work was done I curated a flow through what we had co-created.

The collaborators on this artistic and prayerful response span the gamut from Reform to Orthodox. Some of us are mystics, others are rationalists. Our Judaisms are not the same. Our relationships with that beloved land and its peoples are not the same.  In this we mirror the Jewish community writ large. That feels important to me, too. We are different and we are part of the same whole.

Find the new offering of liturgy, poetry, and artwork from Bayit here, as downloadable PDF chapbook and as google slides suitable for screenshare:

 

Our Collective Heartbreak

 

(And for those who need the above poem in plaintext, instead of as an image, here it is.)

 

Buried

I can't even wish
for a time machine --
we‘d argue
which fork in the road.

The blood of beloveds
cries out from the ground.
Every bent and broken body
was someone’s beloved.

If I say
we’re more alike than not,
all our hearts are shattered
someone will disagree, but

how can I not grieve
with every bereft parent,
most treasured hope
now buried.

 

R. Rachel Barenblat - originally published at Bayit

 


Rejoice / Fragile

וְשָׂמַחְתָ / Rejoice

My door is open. Will you enter?
Taste the air, heady and fragrant --

limned with honeyed autumn light
and wet with morning dew.

Let me wrap around you
like a cloud, like an embrace.

Stay with me just like this.
Joy expands to fill everything.

Fragile

I see how fragile everything is
around you, how tenuous
any peace. Reasons for sorrow
pile up like fallen leaves.
Feel my heart touching yours,
enfolding yours.
I'm here with you where you are
under this roof that lets in rain.

 

I've been working on these two Sukkot poems in tandem. Sukkot for me evokes both fragility (the sukkah begins falling apart as soon as it's created; every life is a sukkah, fragile and fleeting; God knows I've sat with sorrow in the sukkah at times) and joy (Torah tells us to rejoice in our festivals; this is zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing; on Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day, God calls us to linger a little longer in joy.) These poems are somewhat in the mode of Texts to the Holy, though I leave it to you to decide who is speaking, and to whom. They appear above with accompanying images (and alt-text for screenreaders). Below are the two poems as plain text.

 

Fragile

I see how fragile everything is
around you, how tenuous
any peace. Reasons for sorrow
pile up like fallen leaves.
Feel my heart touching yours,
enfolding yours.
I'm here with you where you are
under this roof that lets in rain.


וְשָׂמַחְתָ / Rejoice

My door is open. Will you enter?
Taste the air, heady and fragrant --

limned with honeyed autumn light
and wet with morning dew.

Let me wrap around you
like a cloud, like an embrace.

Stay with me just like this.
Joy expands to fill everything.


Ready or not

The Torah table's in place. The chairs are arranged, and the music stands, like one-footed angels. The microphones, angled just so. The Torahs are wearing white holiday clothes. Prayerbooks wait in tidy stacks. Rolls of stick-on nametags sit beside baskets of printed holiday bracelets. The piano is tuned. The slide decks are ready. The sermons are ready. The blog posts are ready. My white binder of sheet music sports a rainbow of marginal tabs, colorful stepping stones through each service. As for my soul? Just now a spoonful of honeycake batter called her back from distraction, saying: ready or not here we go.


Impulse buys

In early spring it's wild ramps,
dark blades of onion-scented grass.

Then come the fairytale eggplants.
On the cusp of fall, tiny plums.

In winter I splurge on clementines
though citrus won't grow here, at least

not yet. Sometimes I treat myself
to marzipan at Christmastime, though

almond trees are struggling.
We're running out of groundwater.

How long until the memory of coffee beans
will be implausible as the days

when silvery cod were so plentiful
we walked across their backs to shore? 

 


 

 

America Is Using Up Its Groundwater Like There's No Tomorrow, New York Times

Can New England's Cod Fishing Industry Survive?, The Guardian

A Future Without Coffee?, Inter-American Development Bank

 


Find

If I had any pull with God, everything you need
would appear right now in front of you.
A door would open and inside it
a rose-strewn path, the yearned-for embrace.
I’d take the broken pieces of the afikomen
and restore them as if by magic.
But that isn’t how it works. God isn’t
a diner waitress saying what can I get you, hon?
That’s why our sages taught: a clay vessel
is purified when it breaks and is glued.
A human heart, charged with a lifetime’s losses
becomes real when lovingly mended.
All I can do: ask God to cradle your heart
in Her own hands and make you whole.

 

I had actually forgotten that I'd written this poem until someone shared this image on the site formerly known as Twitter. As soon as I read it, I remembered what was on my mind and heart when I wrote it. I had to search on my hard drive to date it, though -- I wrote it in spring of 2015, earlier than I thought. Looks like it was originally written in couplets, though I also like the shape that someone gave it in this image. (There's a slight transcription error in line 8, but I'm honored that someone liked the poem well enough to share it this way, even without the original punctuation and italics.) It's not exactly a sonnet, in terms of rhyme or meter, though it's inspired by the movement of a Petrarchan sonnet -- eight lines, a turn, then six lines. My favorite line is still, "God isn't / a diner waitress saying: what can I get you, hon?" That's not how I understand prayer to work, even petitionary prayer. Sometimes I can't help wishing it worked that way, though. I would order so much wholeness and healing and sweetness and fulfillment of hope. 


Pursue




The cat can tell the moment I'm awake.
He purrs because he knows breakfast will come.
It's dark: I'm not so thrilled to be alert
this rainy Tuesday dawn, brain sputtering
on far too little sleep, running on fumes.
Next time the former president is indicted
for racketeering I shouldn't stay awake
refreshing headlines, waiting for the news.
Of all the things that don't belong in poems --
though justice does, blindfold and sword and scales.
This week our Torah portion is called Judges.
(I cannot make this up.) Too on the nose?
"Justice, justice" -- Moses said it twice.
I live in hope. What else is there to do?

 

 

 

This week's Torah portion: Shoftim.

 

1581501940610

Lady Justice. You go, girl.


After the funeral

 

Rain taps on the roof like quiet hands.
So much softer than clods thudding
on a plain pine box.

Once everyone is gone
they take away the green tent
open on all sides, the worst chuppah.

The words wash away, but
I'll never forget
who rolled up his sleeves to finish shoveling.

 


 

In Jewish tradition, everyone present at an interment shovels some earth onto the casket. It is considered one of the last acts of lovingkindness we can do for the person who has died. 

I do remember, very clearly, who picked the shovel back up and helped us truly finish burying my parents after everyone else had taken a ceremonial turn. I wonder whether every funeral I conduct from now on will always bring those memories to mind.

 


Gevurot: Be There

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This new prayer-poem is in the same vein as Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda Press), my volume of love poems to a beloved or The Beloved (depending on how you want to read them). This is my contribution to the latest collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Eight of us worked together on this one. It's part of a series of offerings arising out of the blessings of the Amidah.

I'll enclose the poem below as plain text for those for whom the above image doesn't work. If you know the blessing we're working with, you may be able to see how each phrase links back to something in the original Hebrew. Or maybe not, and that's okay, too. I hope that the prayer-poem can "work" either way.

These offerings are like fractals, or a kaleidoscope, or a collective word cloud, or a many-faceted gem. The same tiny piece of prayer inspires different things for each of us. Sometimes we root our offerings in the etymology of a particular Hebrew word or phrase. Sometimes the same word takes each of us in a different direction. (Hebrew is rich like that.) We take a prayer and we talk through it. We turn it over and over, and we refract the light of our creativity and our understanding through it. Or we refract ourselves through the lens of the prayer. Or the prayer through the lens of each of us. (Or all of the above.) We share our work, we critique and comment, we make suggestions. We turn things around, change stanzas, turn one poem into two or vice versa. Artists riff off of words. Writers riff off of images. And when all is said and done, we've created something that's more than the sum of its parts. 

I often feel these days that my own creativity is lying fallow. I'm not working on a big poetry project, and that's been true for a while. My last two books were Texts to the Holy (which came out from Ben Yehuda in 2018) and Crossing the Sea (from Phoenicia, 2020). It's going on four years since Crossing the Sea came out, and I don't know what's next. Maybe the pandemic and the loss of my second parent and my heart attack are percolating in me. Maybe the pastoral needs of this moment are so great that I just don't have space for holding a book in mind. Anyway: even in a time of limited personal creativity, this collaborative work at Bayit nourishes me, and it keeps me writing, a little bit. I'm grateful for that.

Read the whole thing here: Amidah Offering: All This Power / Gevurot.

And here's my small offering to the whole: 

 

Gevurot: Be There

 

Be there for me forever.

Wake up the parts of me
that have fallen asleep.

When I'm sitting in ashes
you lift me up
with gentle hands.

With you I feel alive.
All I want
is for your beauty
to bloom.

You're the dew that keeps me going
on the aching, thirsty days
when life wrings me dry,
the rain that refills
the emptied cup of my heart.

 

R. Rachel Barenblat

 


What Gets Me - a new poem for Tisha b'Av

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Not just the litany of destruction: Babylon, Rome, the first Crusade.
Forced out of England, and France, and Spain.
Or how on this day in 1941 the Nazi Party approved
"The Final Solution," the mass graves, the gas chambers.

Or the old claim that we make matzah with their childrens' blood,
or the cartoons that show us hook-nosed and greedy,
money-grubbing, conspiring, defiling the world
with our stubborn insistence that we deserve to exist.

What gets me is that these hatreds persist.
In every antisemitic flyer and QAnon meme.
In every synagogue shooting.
In the uneasy fear that we might be next.

And still somehow we’re meant to look inside, to do the work,
To seek justice for those who have it worse than we,
To make things right with those we’ve harmed,
And if we must, to die like our ancestors  –

– with the Sh’ma on our lips.
 
R. Rachel Barenblat
 
 

It's almost Tisha b'Av. This is the new piece I wrote this year for that somber day. If it speaks to you, feel free to use it and share it.

I wrote it after traveling in Israel this spring. (And no, I'm not writing today about what's happening there. This is not that post.) I was profoundly struck by the reminder of how many peoples have hated us and tried to wipe us out. It's history I've always known, of course. But it lands differently now. Once I had the luxury of imagining that antisemitism was outdated and fading away. With the ugly rise of white nationalism and "Christian nationalism" both here and elsewhere -- with the reality that my synagogue now keeps its doors locked -- with praise for Hitler coming from public figures -- every Jew I know lives with the sickening awareness that there are people who want to exterminate us. Most of the time I keep the fear and grief at bay. But Tisha b'Av is in part about letting ourselves feel the things we keep at arm's length. We let our walls come down and face what feels annihilating. From the other side of that brokenness we begin the ascent to the Days of Awe.

And -- this feels really important to say -- if you are a trauma survivor, do what you need for your own safety. If letting your emotional or spiritual walls fall would harm you, don't do it. I can't say this strongly enough. The spiritual practice of opening ourselves to what's broken is a different thing altogether for someone who already suffers trauma's shrapnel. If that is you, maybe it's not safe for you to break open, or maybe you don't need the reminder of brokenness. Stay safe and whole. 

If you're looking for other resources for Tisha b'Av, here are two at Bayit that I find deeply powerful:

May this year's Tisha b'Av be what we need it to be, and may it move us closer to a world redeemed.

Revelation

One year ago:
a hospital room
on the seventh floor.
I stood for Hallel
in grippy socks
and thin johnny

my hand adorned
with a heparin drip
on a wheeled pole,
leadwires and stickers
reporting on
my unruly heart.

Most days
I forget.
Mind busied
with counting
how many meetings
are scheduled.

Did I make room
in the car
for my son's double bass,
is there milk
in the house
for tomorrow's cereal?

But then
your voice knocks
and my heart wakes,
remembering --
being alive
is revelation.

 

 


Barukh She'Amar (2)

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Every sunrise and sunset, birth
and death, blossom and snowfall...
How does Your mouth not tire
of speaking the world into being?

Almighty, we can’t imagine
infinity without growing weary.
It's hard to remember
Your mouth is purely metaphor

though Your speech is real.
You speak every atom
in the universe,
a mighty chord resounding.

If You ever chose silence,
even for an instant,
we would blink out of existence
as though this experiment had never been.

 

R. Rachel Barenblat

 


 

This is a revision of a liturgical poem I wrote several years ago. It appears in my book Open My Lips, published by Ben Yehuda Press.

I still love the imagery in the original poem, and the way the cascade of items evokes the constancy of God's speaking the world into being. And... I've found that it's too long for me to regularly use as liturgy.

So here's a shortened version that works better for my current davenen-leadership style. Perhaps it will speak to you, too.


Deep

52862132239_f9c5ba0ece_cSo many things here used to be yours. I'm looking at two little harlequin dolls. Their hands and feet are made of china; their bodies are silken beanbags dressed in bright flowers. They sit on a bookshelf at my house, as they did at yours. The bookshelf itself was yours, once, too. I think you would like seeing your things interwoven with mine. Of course, either you will never see this -- or you are always already here with me. Usually I assume it's the latter. Every now and then I'm racked with grief-stricken certainty that it's the former. When that passes, I go back to talking to you every time I pass your photograph, as though it were a window between here and wherever you are. Last night I dreamed that I held my breath, dove deep down into a vast cistern, and slipped through an airlock into a hidden world. There should have been pressure at that depth, but instead gravity was lighter, like walking on the moon. Do you feel lighter now, unencumbered by the illness that mortal flesh is heir to? Where is the airlock that will let me find my way to where you are? 


Ancestors


First thing in the morning
the salon is mostly empty.
A beautician kneels before the altar
with incense, bowing.
Fresh fruit honors the ancestors.
No hungry ghosts here.

The chair next to me is empty.
If I cast my gaze up and to the right
scanning the shelves of polish
I can almost see you
out of the corner of my eye
sitting beside me.

You're wearing capris too, though
you called them pedal-pushers.
Tea-length sleeves, because
you didn't expose your arms
once there were wrinkles.
Bright lipstick, gold hoops.

Your grandson's dating.
Every time the orchestra plays
he wears his grandfather's tie.
How can I miss
these surface conversations
so much?

When I drive, I talk
to Shekhinah in the front seat.
At the beauty parlor I talk to you.
For a moment the incense
overpowers the astringents
like your perfume.

 

 

If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, my most recent volume of poetry, written during the first year of mourning my mother.

On talking to Shekhinah -- here's the title poem of the collection before that one, Texts to the Holy.


Notice


Phone, shut up about the news.
War in Ukraine, assault on trans rights,

a perp walk and its possibilities --
even the very Facebook where people

will find this poem: none of them help me.
Alert me to pay a different attention.

Listen: the red-winged blackbirds are back.
Forsythia blooms across the muddy lawn.

The angle of light has changed -- even when
the mercury drops, the sun's irrepressable.

From here the willow trees look smudged,
sunny haze hinting at leaves to come.

There will always be seasons to notice.
If all else fails, there's always the sky.


Ask

 

Collage3

be a prayer wheel
be a bicycle, playing cards
tucked between the spokes

reciting endlessly
please God please
tick tick whirr

be the ocean
waves rushing out
and surging in

undertow pulling prayer
to the depths and back
tumbled like glass

be a processor
running a subroutine
of constant yearning

do this for years
all the days
of your life

be an oyster
turning what hurts
into a pearl

 


Music, music, music

Every night
I tuck my teen in bed

and close his door, humming
the lullaby you used to sing.

Most kids of his generation
don't know "A Bushel

and a Peck." 1950:
you were glamorous,

flirting with the bugler
you would later marry.

I don't think he remembers
"put another nickel in,

in the nickelodeon,"
though you sang it

when he was swaddled
in velcro-edged blankets.

Another top hit
from when you were fourteen,

the age he's
barreling toward

now.


 

Songs that didn't make it into this draft of this poem include "Sisters, Sisters" (White Christmas, 1954 -- the year my parents married), "Annie Mae, Where Are You Going," (origins unknown, though I suspect it's a camp song from the late 40s or early 50s), and "The Billboard Song" which exists in many folk versions, though of course I'm attached to the one Mom used to sing. Sometimes I wonder which songs from my son's childhood -- or, perhaps, from mine -- will delight and comfort him in the (hopefully distant) future when I'm gone.


Children

Erasure

 

our children have to learn
we need libraries
we accept children

I felt so bad for that boy
taped to the cross with
duct tape

God
keep us safe from people
whose parents ban books

Amen.


 

I am new to the art of erasure poems (and am deeply inspired by Dave Bonta's erasure poems -- here's a recent one that's particularly excellent.)  But I found myself struggling for words this morning. 

Language itself becomes debased, meaning comes unmoored, when people repeatedly insist on things that are not true. This form felt right today. It's my attempt to make meaning out of gibberish. 

(The original text claims to be Sarah Huckabee's "rebuttal" from last night. If you want to read her words, you can easily find a transcript of what she had to say. I won't reprint her words here.)

While I'm here: trans rights are human rights, gender affirming care saves lives, banning books is grotesque, and God is a far vaster reality than what any single religious tradition might claim. 

Updated to add: Thank you to the reader who let me know that I've been hornswoggled -- this is not in fact the text of her rebuttal, it's satire. The fact that I couldn't tell satire from reality does say something about the world we're living in, and about the degradation of truth in an era of misinformation, and about how easy it is to get caught up in the digital outrage machine. I've been reading on Twitter about horrendous anti-trans bills in Missouri and elsewhere, and the ugly rhetoric and triumphalist theology that underpins those, and I was all too ready to take this satire as fact. I should have better media literacy than that -- I should have searched for a corroborating source before getting so angry. I apologize.

Then again, I do like the poem I came up with, so there's that.