A blessing over a Middle Eastern apéritif

170px-Glassofarak_enI'm not sure when I first tasted arak. Wikipedia tells me that it's the traditional alcoholic beverage across Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. It turns out that arak is typically made from the distillation of fermented grapes and/or vines, making it a sort of grappa, though on the second distillation aniseed is added -- hence the drink's characteristic liquorice taste.

I have a distinct memory of drinking arak with Ethan at a bar in Amman back in 2002. That was a business trip for him and a pleasure jaunt for me; I spent most of my days sightseeing, he spent most of his days in meetings, and then in the evening we'd meet for dinner and to stroll around the city and explore Amman by night. And one night we wound up at a bar sipping arak. I seem to remember that I'd tasted arak before that, though. Or maybe it just reminded me of other anise-flavored beverages from other corners of the Mediterranean. I've always loved anise, especially when its setting is at least as much savory as sweet, so arak and I were immediate friends.

2620310565_7b97df9231_m During the summer when I lived in Jerusalem, I used to walk from our sublet on Rechov Lincoln to a nearby restaurant and bar. This is five years ago now. It seems both far more recent, and far more distant -- an artifact, I suspect, of the ways in which life shifts when one has a child. But this was in our pre-child days. And because Ethan and I have lived in rural America for the better part of twenty years, I took pains that summer to go out from time to time, if only to experience the unique gifts of city life.

My housemates were a dear rabbinic school friend, her husband, and their daughter, who was three and a half that summer. Their kid was the same age then that our son is now, which is humbling and amazing when I stop to think about it; that was my first experience of living with a little one, and it was part of what made me feel able to take the leap into trying to get pregnant the following fall. Anyway, that kiddo and her mama went to bed early, for reasons I understand now all too well. So sometimes, in the evening, I'd walk to the nearby Restobar by myself, wanting to get out of the apartment and to take advantage of living in a city for a change.

Restobar was usually busy in the evenings, but I could usually find a table where I could nestle out of the way by myself. When my server came around, I would order kos arak, b'vak'sha. When it arrived, I would open up my laptop and use their wireless internet to correspond with Ethan or with friends back home (there was no internet in our apartment) as the melting ice turned the clear liquor cloudy and my mouth tingled with anise. Their menu also featured arak with grapefruit juice, but I was never able to imagine that combination of flavors -- and anyway, my blood pressure meds make grapefruit generally contraindicated. So I stuck with drinking it on the rocks, and was quite content.

Despite living in a small town in western Massachusetts, Ethan and I live a fairly cosmopolitan lifestyle -- but there are certain flavors which are hard to come by around these parts. None of the stores in our entire county stock arak, and for whatever reason, sambuca (which is easy to find) doesn't have the same zing for me. At the end of my Jerusalem summer, I spent my final wad of shekels on a bottle of arak at the airport duty-free shop, meaning to bring it home for Ethan to enjoy with me...only to have it poured into a trash can by an overzealous customs agent at Heathrow, because it hadn't been in a sealed ziploc bag when I got off the plane. Needless to say, I was miffed. (Obviously on some level I still am, or I wouldn't remember the story so well.)

On a recent trip to the big city -- for the final Rabbis Without Borders retreat -- I happened into a liquor store and noticed that they had Israeli arak on their shelves. Bingo: I picked up a bottle and schlepped it happily home. After that, the Berkshires were cool and rainy for a while (there was even danger of frost) so I forgot about the arak entirely. In my mind it's a hot weather beverage, something to sip slowly over ice on a warm night. But this weekend, summer has arrived wholly. And after I put our little guy to bed, my eye chanced on the bottle, and I poured myself a few fingers over ice. It swirled milkily as the ice began to melt on contact with the room-temperature anise-flavored liquid. I wondered whether I would still like it, after all this time.

The first sip was extraordinary. If I closed my eyes I could be right back at the Restobar, listening to people cheering and shouting in Hebrew at a televised soccer match, knowing that an endlessly ancient and endlessly complicated city was just outside the door. Or back at that bar in Amman, sitting on a barstool beside Ethan, listening to the sounds of Arabic around us. Instead here I am at our house in western Massachusetts, listening to local birdsong, surrounded by the rustle of green leaves, our son (God willing) at last falling asleep in his downstairs bedroom. But the taste of the Middle East is delicious and complicated on my tongue, and I am grateful for it.

Is there a bracha for an apéritif? The traditional answer is that alcohol which isn't wine is blessed with the blessing known as shehakol; it's the garden-variety all-inclusive one, the blessing for anything that doesn't have its own dedicated bracha. (It goes like this: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, Who creates all things with Your word.") But I can't help thinking that the right blessing is actually the shehecheyanu, the blessing through which we sanctify time. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who has kept me alive, and sustained me, and enabled me to reach this moment -- and enabled me to be so immersed in memory -- and enabled my connections with places and moments which are far away, but which still live in my mind, and in my heart, and on my tongue.



Related: Foods of Israel: Arak cocktails in The Jew and the Carrot.

On arriving in the city one last time

One of the things I'll miss about this Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship, when it formally ends after this week, is the routine I developed this year of driving to the train station and taking Amtrak into the city, then walking to the hotel where RWB puts us up. I've loved the feeling of having a regular city routine: I know my way around Penn Station now, I know how to walk to the hotel, I know my way around this hotel, the rooms are familiar...

I lived in this city as a kid, for one year. My parents, bless them, had always wanted to live in Manhattan. And the year I turned ten, they were able to; so we did. One of my brothers stayed in my childhood home and house-sat. We moved into a Manhattan apartment for a year. I attended a posh city girls' school. Our building had a doorman, and an elevator that went very, very high. (Or at least it seemed that way to me; I was nine when we got here, and had lived my whole life in a standalone limestone house with a Spanish tile roof.) New York amazed me then. It still does.

I used to think I would move here when I grew up. And the city is an incredible place, full of life and vibrancy. There are more people on this one island, not to mention in the other boroughs of this vast interconnected cityspace, than I can honestly imagine. I love walking past all of the different restaurants and stores and food carts, the stoops and windows and doors. I love seeing all of the different kinds of people one encounters in any city in the world. I know now that living here isn't my path -- I love my small mountain town too much -- but I always love dipping in to the river of New York.

When I arrived this time, I walked through a corridor of greenery on my way to the hotel. Apparently that block is a floral district of some kind, and now that it is May, the block is fully decked out for spring: standing plants, walls of wooden vases and birchbark flowerpots. I think the greenery is particularly noticeable because it's against the backdrop of all of this noise and exhaust and commotion, these tall buildings stretching toward the clouds. It was funny to suddenly be surrounded by green, just as I am at home at this season.

On the morning of my departure, our son solemnly told me to have a good time in New York City. "Some day I could take you there," I offered. "We could take a train to the big city, and go see some other kids whose mommies are my friends, and then go to a big museum where you can see dinosaur bones." His eyes grew large as saucers. "We can?" he breathed, as though I had just told him we could fly to the Moon. "Really, mommy?" Really, I promised. We really can. Not today, but maybe one day soon.

So I know I'll be back, New York; I've promised my son that I'll show him some of your wonders. (He's actually been here before, twice, but doesn't remember either trip. This time, though, I suspect he'll engage with the city in a whole new way.) For now, I have a couple of days during which I get to relish being part of this fabulous cohort of rabbis from across the different streams of Judaism: two days of conversations, meals, learning, collegiality, and the rare gift -- for the mother of a three year old -- of being entirely on my own, free to peoplewatch, to walk at an adult's pace, and to enjoy the company of colleagues and friends.

A visit to Sagrada Familia

Gaudí's Sagrada Familia is amazing. I've never seen a cathedral like it. And I have seen a fair number of cathedrals. (I guess it isn't technically a cathedral; it won't be home to a bishop. But what else can one call such a grand and soaring Christian religious space?)

Beams of light.

It's a bit as though an art deco - modernist worship space had been built in Tolkien's mythical Lothlorien. I think it's the giant soaring columns modeled to look like plane trees, holding up the exquisite skylight-riddled roof, which put me in mind of golden elvish Mallorn trees. It's almost as though the columns (several different shapes and diameters, each made of a different stone) grew organically from the floor to create the ceiling. Which I guess would be one explanation for the wonderful and whimsical finials on the roofs which look like unearthly fruit.

Seen from outside.

It is enormous. Mind-bogglingly enormous. It can hold thousands of people. In the way of cathedrals, it has already taken well over a century to build. Most of the main building is complete, and there are three extraordinary towers (into which visitors can ascend) -- though the plan calls for a total of eighteen towers, so there's a lot more left to build. When Gaudí died in 1926, only a quarter of the project was complete.

Pillars and light.

There are spiraling staircases and great openings and amazing light. There are sculptures which tell stories. At the top of the many spire / tower roofs there are the kind of giant and fanciful mosaic fruits I saw on the roof of a Gaudi-designed mansion the day before. One side of the church (known as the Glory facade) has exterior pillars which appear to rest on a giant tortoise and a giant turtle -- symbols of land and sea. This is a structure which praises God through lifting up aspects of nature, aspects of creation, in their beauty.


When I was there on a Friday morning, they were piping in choral music which completed with the sounds of construction continuing overhead. As I sat in a chair in the huge and spacious nave, and quietly davened some morning blessings to myself, I heard the strains of Duruflé's "Ubi Caritas," one of my very favorite Christian sacred pieces to sing. Where there are charity and love, there, one finds God -- yes indeed.

Crane at work.

I wandered the building in a daze, dodging other tourists who, like me, were attempting to capture the ineffable on film. I took an elevator up to the top of the tower named for the Passion, and marveled at the views of Barcelona, and then slowly, slowly, walked the 425 steps back down to the ground. I trailed my fingers along the narrow staircase as I went, and marveled at the work of all of these combined human hands.

Light on columns.

I always love visiting sacred spaces. Even if they're not "mine" in the sense of being Jewish sacred spaces, I feel an affinity for them because they are someone's idea of holy; because they are built for community and prayer; because they are meant to reflect a tiny fraction of the glory of the Infinite. I'm really glad to have spent a morning in this one.

(For more images from our few days in Spain, including a few more of Sagrada Familia and a few of a mansion designed by Gaudí called Palau Guell, here's my Barcelona photoset on Flickr.)

Unexpected gifts

At an airport restaurant in Boston I withdrew my kindle from my bag. It's the kindle Ethan gave me when Drew was born; I think of it still as "the nursing kindle," because it made possible the act of reading-while-nursing (and, even more importantly, reading while my sacked-out son slept on me.) Reading a book while holding a sleeping infant was impossible; the crinkle of turning pages (not to mention the movement) would wake him straight away, but the small thumbclick of the "next page" button didn't. It was a godsend.

Anyway, last week I purchased a few books I've been wanting to read -- Ted Conover's book on roads, Anne Lamott's journal of her grandson's first year -- and last night as I sat down for a sandwich before my flight, I pulled out the kindle, ready to read. Alas! The screen was broken. I fiddled with it for a while, but it was pretty clear: this was, as Monty Python might have said, an ex-kindle.

I hastily downloaded the books onto my phone (now doing triple duty as phone, camera, and e-book reader) and resolved to look into the kindle paperwhite when I got home. Then it was time for the transatlantic flight. The so-called "sleep" over the ocean is better left undescribed. Upon arriving at Heathrow, though, a real gift was waiting: breakfast with my parents.

My parents live in Texas, where Drew and I visited them a few weeks ago. Long story short, they're joining some friends on a tour of (parts of) India this month. To make the travel and the shift in time zones slightly easier for them, they flew into Heathrow a day before the rest of their group and spent the night in an airport hotel, getting a good night of sleep in a real bed before embarking on the eight-hour flight to Delhi. As it happened, they had a few hours of layover between waking up in their airport hotel and departing for India. And those few hours matched precisely the few hours of my layover between one flight and the next!

Even though it had sounded as though the stars might be aligned for us, I was dubious. (For one thing, there's a transportation strike in Barcelona which had caused my first flight to be canceled; though the airlines claimed they were rebooking me on a later flight, who was to say it too wouldn't disappear?) And Heathrow is enormous. Who was to say we would actually be able to find each other, even if our layovers did magically overlap?

I didn't entirely believe it was going to work until I saw my mother standing outside a Duty Free shop. What a joy, to see my parents in this unlikely way, so far from home! We found a place which served oatmeal (just the thing for our slightly travel-addled systems) and we talked about their trip and my trip and how incredibly blessed we all feel to be able to do this travel at this moment in our lives. They'll see a few things in India which Ethan and I saw on our 2002 trip (I told them to keep an eye out for the monkeys at the Taj Mahal at sundown), though they'll also see places I didn't get to go. And I'll see things in Barcelona which will be new to them (it's a city they haven't yet visited), though our trip will be far shorter than thers -- a mere 3.5 days, attached to Ethan's speaking obligation at News X Change.

When we saw our gates listed on the overhead board, we regretfully hugged and parted ways, wishing wished one another bon voyage. "Enjoy every moment," we said to each other, and beamed.What a sweet little interlude. The chance to sit down for breakfast with my parents is rare enough now that I live a thousand miles away, but the chance to do so in London, as our paths temporarily crossed on our various arcs across space and time zones? Priceless.


Breakfast at Heathrow with Mom and Dad!

Dancing With the Widow (reprint of an essay from 2000)

Like the others, she's clad in skirt and blouse with an extra yard of fabric wrapped shawl-fashion. Unlike the others, she wears a coarse rope around her waist. Sometimes another woman leads her by it, into the dancing, out of the dancing. Sometimes it just dangles. We are in the town of Medie. The bound woman is a new widow: the dancing is her husband’s wake.

Medie is a village not far north of Accra, Ghana's capital city. Medie is not a place many Westerners visit, although that may change in time. We are there because the elder brother of a close friend has died of lung cancer ("He wasn't Y2K-compliant," jokes our friend, familiar with the Y2K bug although he's never used a computer) and we are there for the last six hours of his two-day wake.


Xylophone music in Medie. A few years after this funeral.

Continue reading "Dancing With the Widow (reprint of an essay from 2000)" »


O beautiful for spacious skies (highway, south Texas)


for amber waves of grain (winter rye, western Massachusetts)


For purple mountains' majesty (Berkshires, western Massachusetts)


Above the fruited plain (strawberry field, western Massachusetts)


America, America, God shed His grace on thee (border crossing, northern New York)


And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea (rocky coast, Maine: Atlantic)


to shining sea (jetty, southern California: Pacific)!


(lyrics from America the Beautiful.) Happy Fourth of July to all who celebrate!


Last time we visited Texas, my son was 18 months old:

My son and my dad. June 2011.

This time, he's two years and 2.5 months. (Eight months make a big difference at this age.) I'm looking forward to once again reintroducing him to my hometown, and to his extended Texas clan.

I'm not sure he understands when I say we're going on a plane to see his grandparents, though he repeats the words: "onna plane! See Na, see Pop!"

And while we're there, we get to celebrate the wedding of one of my cousins. A joy all around.

Blogging will be minimal (or nonexistent) while we're on the road. So will my ability to respond to email and comments. Thanks for understanding. See y'all on the flipside.

Off we go!


Back in July, when I began planning my first Days of Awe as a pulpit rabbi, I said to Ethan, "We should pick a weekend after all the holidays are over, and find a way to spend that weekend doing something fun together."

We knew already that he was going to be starting his new gig at MIT and would be in Boston half of every week. We knew that his fall was going to feature a lot of extra travel as well, and we knew that his first month or so at MIT was likely to be pretty densely-packed. And we knew that the Days of Awe are a busy time for everyone in my line of work: so many services to plan and lead, so many details to organize, so many hopes and expectations to try to meet. I figured the odds were good that he and I wouldn't get a ton of time for us until his busy start to the semester, and my busy High Holiday season, were past.

And then Ethan got invited to speak at yet another conference. This happens with fairly predictable regularity, of course; it's a big part of how he works, these days. But this time the invitation came from a college friend who we haven't seen in years -- and the conference was scheduled right after my long string of holidays (Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah) was slated to end. Oh, and the conference in question is in Paris.

"Paris," I pointed out, "would be a fabulous place to spend a weekend together."

So Ethan said yes to the conference (which will happen early next week), and we booked an extra plane ticket and a couple of extra nights at a hotel, and my in-laws graciously agreed to spend these few days staying at our house with our adorably rambunctious toddler, and we are going on a weekend vacation.

One of Drew's favorite things to say is "Off we go!" (Clearly we say this to him when we're getting ready to hit the road, and he has learned to repeat it with great enthusiasm and glee.) So I'll echo our beautiful child and say: off we go! See y'all on the flipside.

Three glimpses of Texas

leading services

Leading services for an enthusiastic crowd of about 30, Temple Chai, Shabbat morning.


Drew enjoys the restored 1918 carousel (with cousin Elaine), Kiddie Park, midweek.

sunrise in Bandera

Sunrise, Medina River Ranch, Bandera, Shabbat morning.

My family and I (in various combinations) spent a wonderful ten days in Texas. I got to participate in services at my parents' congregation (where I grew up and was confirmed), lead davenen for a new congregation which has arisen since I moved away, join with a retired minister in a poetry reading and free-flying conversation -- and take Drew to see some of San Antonio's best toddler-appropriate sights, see my parents and siblings, and enjoy the flavors of the town where I grew up. The trip culminated in a weekend at a ranch in the hill country where we celebrated a variety of family milestones. I'm endlessly grateful to have gone, to have had these experiences and adventures, to have reintroduced my son to the place I come from...and now to be home in the Berkshires again.

Two vignettes from the 70 faces book tour

Southern Quebec on a spring afternoon.

On Saturday evening we gathered in a beautiful underground chapel at the Unitarian Church of Montreal. This might in another church have been a plain cinderblock room, but here the four walls were painted with scenes from Canada's different landscapes: on one wall boreal forest, on another plains and prairie, all the way to the icebergs and polar bear cubs of Nunavut. The one pillar in the middle of the room was painted to resemble a tree. What a transformation!

Some folks came from the Unitarian Church of Montreal, a bunch from Chavurah Har Kodesh, plus one fellow blogger (that I knew of, at least), Susannah of Delight Was Once. We dimmed the lights and began with havdalah, which was lovely; it was the first time I'd ever used ras el hanout as the b'samim, the fragrant spices intended to revive us from the departure of Shabbat's extra soul. I think I saw one person moved to tears.

And then I asked the crowd to tell me favorite bits of Torah, and/or bits of Torah which challenge and distance them, and explained that if I had poems which arise out of those bits of Torah I would share those, and that would be the structure for the reading. People asked for wonderful and surprising things. Usually when I do this, people ask for Abraham, Isaac, Joseph; this time people asked for the thicket of sexual laws in Leviticus (I read "Naked" and "Gevurah"), for Miriam (I was so sorry I didn't have my seven Miriam stories poems with me! though I read my Song at the Sea poem), for Moshe receiving revelation.

After the formal reading was over, people stayed and schmoozed for almost an hour, eating cookies and drinking juice and chatting with me and each other as I signed books.

And then I went home with my friend Shoshanna, and savored a Unibroue, and in the morning I got to enjoy crépes and a bowl of café au lait big enough to swim in.


Montreal skyline, seen through my windshield.

Christ Church Cathedral is glorious and soaring. It has a beautiful ornamented ceiling, and stained glass windows which put me in mind of Reb Zalman's saying that in order to understand how a Christian worships, one needs to enter into his/her sacred space and relate to it from there -- to see the beauty of the stained glass windows from the inside, as it were. When we arrived, the choir was practicing something which sounded late-medieval or early Renaissance, with close harmonies, exactly the kind of music I used to most love to sing.

The service was lovely (complete with a baptism of three kids, which we were all invited to come up close to witness.) I enjoyed the sermon, which was about Cleophas and Mrs. Cleophas meeting Jesus on the road from Jerusalem -- and about intertextuality, which was a great set-up for our lunchtime discussion, actually.

And then we had lunch -- 20+ people around an enormous table eating sandwiches -- and Beth and I talked about poetry, Torah, midrash, and interpretation. I shared five poems from 70 faces ("The angels say" from the akedah cycle for Genesis; "The Psalm I Sing" for Exodus; "Like God" for Leviticus; "Downside" for Numbers; and "Mobius" for Deuteronomy -- please note that I'm linking here to the original versions of the poems; some were revised before publication, but these are the online versions I can point to.)

Using the five poems as jumping-off points, we talked about each of the five books, about their themes, about midrash and feminism and wrestling with difficult texts, along the way touching on Israel/Palestine, miscarriage and motherhood, and more. (A video of our conversation will be online at some point -- I'll let y'all know when it's up.)

And then helping hands whisked away the sandwiches and the water pitchers as I signed books and chatted with folks, and slowly people drifted away until only my hosts and I remained.

And once we changed into jeans, Beth and Jonathan and I walked around town, and had coffee and pastries, and relaxed with an early evening glass of wine, and eventually strolled to a neighborhood bistro for dinner just before closing time.

And in the morning, I drove home.

Returning home.

Edited to add: for more on this, don't miss Beth's beautiful post Sweetness, about our presentation, our afternoon together, and the wonders of a friendship which bridges so many divides, religion among them.

Three glimpses of vacation


A gull and the bright blue sea.


The majesty of Chichen Itza.


Swimming in a cenote.

And now it's back to normalcy: parenting, dishes, laundry, preparing to lead a mock Rosh Hashanah service tomorrow (test-driving the Reform movement's machzor-in-progress), and getting ready for a trio of 70 faces events in Boston this weekend (about which more shortly.) Still, it was lovely to get a few days away. And now it is lovely to be home.


Beach umbrella and surfer.

Last time I went to a beach, I was entering my second trimester of pregnancy (with substantial relief -- after one miscarriage, I spent that first trimester on tenterhooks.) That was a trip to South Padre Island, on the Gulf coast of Texas.

The photo above is from a different beach: one of the beaches just north of the city of Tel Aviv, on one of the Shabbatot I took as a mini-vacation the summer I was living in Jerusalem.

And today Ethan and I are off to yet a different coast: we're headed for Playa del Carmen in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. We'll be away for five days, all told. And Drew is staying home with his grandparents, which means we're going to get to savor the newly-strange sensation of being alone together!

I have high hopes of seeing some ruins; I also have high hopes of just lying on a beach for a little while, listening to the waves. Anyway: not planning to blog while we're gone. Precious moments of vacation are too hard-won. See you when we're home again!

Three days at Knox

Old Main.

On my first day in Galesburg, after a walking tour of the Knox campus (including the site of one of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates) and lunch with a handful of Knox faculty and staff, I had the profound pleasure of discussing my Akedah Cycle of poems (now published in 70 faces) with the students in the Feminist Methodologies class who had been assigned the task of reading the relevant sections of Genesis alongside the poems themselves.

We had a fabulous and free-wheeling conversation about the Bible (some of them had gone to years of religious school; others had never cracked open a Bible before), midrash (which one of the students compared with fanfiction, to my delight -- that's an argument which I'm going to explore in some depth in a forthcoming article), theology, names for God, the divine feminine, the Lurianic cosmogony and the task of lifting up the sparks, reproductive technology, the idea of reading beloved texts with awareness of their problematic qualities but still with love (I was thinking of Wendy Doniger's excellent essay Thinking Critically About Thinking Too Critically [pdf], though I couldn't come up with her name in that moment), the responsibility to wrestle with the texts we hold dear, and more.


That evening I gave a talk about midrash and poetry, which culminated in a reading of the Akedah Cycle and then some Q-and-A. That was a lot of fun, too; I had forgotten the extent to which those poems were intended to be read aloud (though of course they were; I wrote them as a sermon in the first place) and people asked excellent questions, like how becoming a mother had changed my relationship with these Torah texts and whether I'd explored the extent to which some of these same stories appear in the Qur'an. (I got to talk a little bit about the retreat I attended for emerging Jewish and Muslim religious leaders and the study of the Joseph/Yusuf story that we did there...)

Thursday morning was spent with a rotating group of Knox students (from SASS, Hillel, and other places), a giant latte, and a pile of mini-muffins from the local bakery. We talked about school and religion and theology and travel and life after college and all kinds of good stuff. And then I got to have lunch with three faculty members, during which we discussed everything from hadith about Isaac and Ishmael to the appeal of Eastern religious traditions to religious pedagogy to the theologies of Battlestar Galactica and the Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Having a latte on hallowed ground.

And finally, on Thursday afternoon, I read from my poems as part of the Caxton Club's literary series. I read mostly poems from 70 faces, though also some poems from chaplainbook, and even a handful of poems from Waiting to Unfold, my as-yet unpublished manuscript of mother poems. The crowd was smallish (perhaps because the posters had, it was discovered, been printed with a January date) but those who were there were receptive listeners, and they asked fabulous questions afterwards -- about my creative processes, about commitment, about Torah poems and motherhood poems. It was grand.

And now, as Shabbat approaches, I'm on my way home -- and getting ready to lead services at my shul tomorrow morning, and looking forward to seeing my sweet little boy again! I'm so grateful to the community at Knox for welcoming me into your midst. Thanks for giving this rabbi, poet, and mama a chance to spend a few days with you, discussing subjects I hold dear.


Off to Texas again

Drew and me in a field of wildflowers; San Antonio, April 2010.

This morning Drew and I are off on the second plane trip of his life -- once again, to San Antonio, my birthplace, where we'll spend a week visiting my family. I'm looking forward to reintroducing him to his uncles, taking him to the zoo, and introducing him to his first bean-and-cheese taco (which I expect will be a huge hit!) Also, of course, to the joy of seeing him with my parents.

Blogging will likely be pretty sporadic while we're on the road. Have a great week, everyone!

And we're off!

Big Texas sky.

Drew and I are off to Texas -- his first time on a plane, and his first chance to meet his extended Texas mishpacha.

If you're in San Antonio, and are free on Friday night (April 23), feel free to come to the 6:30pm "alternative" service in the Barshop Auditorium at Temple Beth El, my parents' shul. I've been invited to give the d'var Torah, so my family and I will be there...and although 7pm is Drew's usual bedtime, I'm hoping he'll nap well that day and might be able to stay awake and cheery through the service!

Anyway: blogging has been light here lately since Drew was born anyway, so it seems a bit silly to say that blogging will be light while we're in Texas, but it will. Off we go into the wild blue yonder!

This week's portion: departure


I'd never been further from home
than Aram of Two Rivers
where the Tigris and Euphrates
flow together in a muddy swirl

sometimes on market day
I'd buy figs, shallots, garlic
sometimes there were traders
with bolts of indigo

but mostly I knew our homestead
the smoke-stained oven, the paddocks
where we penned the goats
to stay safe overnight

and now this camel's steady gait
rocks me step by step across the scrub
toward a distant cousin, a stranger
who will welcome me into his tent

my father and brother blessed me
that I might grow into myriads
I can hardly imagine
another heart beneath my own

This week we're reading parashat Chayyei Sarah, the parsha with the ironic name: though its first two words mean "Sarah's lifetime" (or "the lives of Sarah"), the parsha begins with her death. The woman for whom the parsha is named appears in these columns of text only to be buried.

One of the central stories of this parsha is the story of how Abraham's servant (commonly known as Eliezer) goes back to the land where Abraham came from in order to find a wife for Isaac. That's the story I chose to focus on for this week's parsha poem.

The text doesn't give us many details about Rebecca. Eliezer prays that the woman who offers him water and offers to water his camels be the one he's looking for, which raises fascinating questions of how we discern the right course of action in an unknown situation. We know that she is beautiful, and she is generous with water and with her time. Once her father and brother agree that she should go with Eliezer, her brother and mother ask that she allowed to remain for ten days, but Eliezer asks to leave right away, and Rebecca acquiesces.

That's pretty much all we get, so this week's Torah poem explores some of what might have been going on in her mind as this story unfolds. What resonates for you, reading the story of Rebecca's departure from home?

I didn't manage to write to this week's ReadWritePoem prompt, which has to do with repurposing images from dreams, but here's a link to this week's Get Your Poem On post in case you'd like to see what other RWP folks wrote this week.


By the way, if you enjoy these Torah poems: allow me to recommend Awkward Offerings. Sue Swartz offers a variety of musings on Torah, including a series of Torah poems which are very different from mine and also quite wonderful. You can subscribe to the blog, or check out her index of Torah/Poetry, as you prefer.

Heading for the Gulf Coast

It's been a nice quiet Sunday: pancakes and the Times, throwing together a quiche for tomorrow morning (we're hosting old friends for brunch), folding laundry, cleaning house. I backed up my hard drive this weekend, and charged my phone and aging ipod for travel, since I'm off to Texas tomorrow to spend the next week with my family. I'll make it as far as San Antonio before I sleep; Tuesday morning we'll load up a caravan of vehicles and head for the Texas coast!

It's a bit over a year since last time I was in Texas, so I'm really looking forward to the trip. Seeing my parents and my siblings and their children is always a treat, and I'm jazzed about getting my annual fix of Tex-Mex cuisine and big Texas skies. Plus, ocean -- last one of those I had the pleasure of dipping into was the Mediterranean Sea, my final weekend in Tel Aviv last August. It's more than 15 years since I immersed in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, so I'm looking forward to that, too.

I hope there will be internet where we're staying; I intend to keep up with my discipline of writing a Torah poem each week, and I'd love to post that here, along with (maybe) whatever other small musings arise. But I doubt that I'll keep up with reading my blog aggregator, and I may not be blogging much from the road. Thanks for understanding, and I hope y'all have a lovely week!

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A taste of far away

Argentina's Ruta Nacional 40 is legendary. It runs most of the length of the country, a distance of more than 3000 miles. A recent article in La Nación [Spanish] notes that the task of paving the remaining dirt stretches has a hefty price tag. When we spent a day driving RN 40 last month, we drove past some paving machinery, though I don't remember seeing anyone at work. I was glad we got to drive some of the original road before it got paved over, anyway.

That day offered up some of the most exquisite vistas of our trip. We started out in the town of El Calafate; our destination was El Chaltén, which Lonely Planet told us is Argentina's newest settlement, built in recent years to ensure sovereignty over that particular patch of mountainous land, since the Chilean border isn't far at all.

It took us three or four hours to drive from one town to the other, and most of that time was spent on RN 40. The drive was extraordinary. Great sweeping plains which drew the eye to distant mountains, some capped with snow. Here and there, glacial lakes, a surreal shade of mint-green or aquamarine-blue, like tropical seas wildly out of place. Between them, the rushing waters of glacial streams. From time to time, turnoffs for estancias, usually little more than signs pointing offroad to tell us that someone owned property here, that there might be a house if one turned and drove far enough. Maybe.

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Shabbat morning at the Libertad

The sanctuary of the Libertad synagogue in Buenos Aires. Image courtesy of the Jewish Virtual Library.

When I was an MFA student at Bennington, I spent six months studying Jewish literature with my advisor David Lehman. (The paper I wrote that semester is fifteen years old now and I'd revise it if I had the time, but if you're curious, it's called Nu: what makes Jewish literature so Jewish, anyway?) During that six months I read all sorts of poetry and prose, including two volumes in the Jewish Latin America series edited by Ilán Stavans (who I heard speak at Williams a few months ago.) Novels including Cláper (Venezuela) and The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas (Argentina) reminded me that the Ashkenazic immigration story familiar to most North American Jews is paralleled by the story of Jews immigrating to South America, many to Argentina.

My great-aunt Vera (of blessed memory) and great-uncle Carlos emigrated to Brazil and lived there for many years before coming to the States. (My middle name, Evelyne, honors their daughter who died when I was a child.) And the grandmother after who I am named emigrated to Mexico and came to San Antonio once she became engaged to my grandfather who already had residence in Texas. So I'm keenly aware that Jews who left Europe came to the Americas through doors other than Ellis Island (see the Galveston Movement)... and went to places even further south than San Antonio where I was born and reared. But since I read those books at Bennington I hadn't thought much about the Jews of Argentina, until we planned a vacation there.

Buenos Aires is home to a sizeable Jewish community, including many synagogues and even a rabbinic school (associated with the Conservative movement, it's the only rabbinic seminary in the southern hemisphere.) Before we left on our vacation I did some reading about Jewish Argentina, and promised myself that I would try to daven b'tzibbur (with a community) while we were there. The day before we left the country, I went to daven shacharit at Argentina's oldest synagogue, Congregacion Israelita de la Republica Argentina (CIRA -- here's their Spanish-language Wikipedia entry, since the English one is pretty paltry) also known as "Libertad" because it overlooks a small plaza of the same name. According to the Fundación Judaica, CIRA was founded in 1862; the current building was constructed in 1897 and remodeled in 1932.

I must have been the tenth person to arrive. I got there around 10am, expecting the service to be well underway, but found instead a handful of people chatting in Spanish in the enormous ornate sanctuary. In front of us, a half-dome adorned with gold mosaic spelled out the words of the shema, topped by a round stained-glass window featuring a star of David. Above the ark I could see the workings of a massive pipe organ. About three minutes after I got there, the small crowd moved to the pews at the front of the room, and beckoned for me to join them, and began to sing.

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A day on the ice

I don't write here often about my curious fascination with the polar regions. Back in 2004 I had the chance to hear modern-day polar explorer Ben Saunders speak at Pop!Tech, and blogged it in a post called Digression: obsession with the poles. And when President Obama was inaugurated I posted an inaugural ode which draws on imagery of polar exploration. But that's about it. Well: here's a third post in this unofficial series touching on ice and vastness and beauty.

In 1998 I picked up Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita, which is about the strange, unearthly beauty of the bottom of the earth. Since then I've read every polar exploration chronicle I can find, both Arctic and Antarctic, though my heart belongs most to Antarctica. Maybe it's so impossibly far away from where I live that it becomes a representation rather than a real place, a symbol of inaccessibility and yearning. (Annie Dillard reads this idea through a theological lens in a truly gorgeous way -- I recommend her essay "An Expedition to the Pole," which you can find in Teaching a Stone to Talk.) Like Dillard, and Wheeler, I love reading the polar exploration narratives because of their purity of yearning... and because Antarctica had no native population (save penguins and seals), I can revel in the history without being troubled by the problematics of colonialism and exoticism.

Well, alas, I can't announce at this time that we decided to set off from the tip of Argentina toward Antarctica. (Argentina is a delightfully affordable country in which to travel, but the relative strength of the US dollar there still doesn't make travel to Antarctica remotely reasonable.) But I feel like this vacation let me get a little bit closer to understanding life on the ice, because one of its highlights was a "minitrek" on the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, which was incredible.

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