Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Some Poems for Passover

April 15, 2014

IMG_6311The power of the Passover seder lies in the fact that it’s always the same. And always different.


In our family, certain foods are non-negotiable – Big Grandma’s matzo ball soup, Little Grandma’s chremsels, Manischewitz. Other parts of the menu vary. Lately I’ve been substituting Yeminite charoset for the Ashkanazik standard. I’ve eliminated tzimmes and added matzo crunch.


Likewise, each year, our family uses the same Haggadah we’ve been using for years. The set was handed down to me in the 1990s, when my parents updated to a newer edition. We wouldn’t abandon these old books for the world. The pages are stained with the wine and charoset of Passovers past, and four separate volumes are marked up with the names of the loved ones, many long gone, assigned each year’s parts – first in my father’s hand and then in mine. You couldn’t ask for more tangible connection to tradition.

And we would never dream of changing or omitting the core texts, like the blessings, the four questions and Chad Gadya, to name just a few. But lots of the translations and footnotes feel dated, or just like missed opportunities to explore something more.

So while we stick with the old, I sometimes add something new. This year it was poetry. Early Monday afternoon, between cooking the chicken and setting the table, I scoured my bookshelves, and picked out four poems to augment the traditional seder text. I marked the pages, and scattered the books around the table, alongside the Haggadahs, and at the appropriate time, asked someone to read.


The first thing you eat at the seder is a green vegetable dipped in salt water. In our house, it’s parsley. Sometimes at this point we read the note in our Haggadah about springtime and renewal. Sometimes we read lines from the Song of Songs about winter being over. This year, we read this: 


The First Green of Spring

David Budbill


Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,

This sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting

To a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,


Harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching

on this message from the dawn which says we and the world

are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday. And


even though we know we are growing old, we are dying, we

will never be young again, we also know we’re still right here

now, today, and, my oh my! don’t these greens taste good.



There are lots of ways to bring to life the ten plagues the Egyptians suffered before the Israelites fled. I read on Facebook that my rabbi was using ping pong balls to simulate the seventh plague, which is hail. I chose this:



Kay Ryan


Like a storm

of hornets, the

little white planets

layer and relayer

in their high orbits,

getting more and

more dense before

they crash against

our crust. A maelstrom

of ferocious little

fists and punches,

so hard to believe

once it’s past.



Pharaoh: Arch-Tyrant

After we recite the plagues, I like to read a section from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s New Haggadah, in which he expands on the concept of the Pharoah. Kaplan writes, “….Pesach means more than that first emancipation the Israelites won from Pharoah when they left Egypt…It means emancipation wrested from the yoke of conquerors, freedom from the bonds of slavery, and the right of peoples to self-determination.”


This year I augmented that reading with this poem:



Langston Hughes


Democracy will not come

Today, this year

Nor ever

Through compromise and fear.


I have as much right

As the other fellow has

To stand

On my two feet

And own the Land.


I tire so of hearing people say,

Let things take their course.

Tomorrow is another day.

I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.

I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.



Is a strong seed


In a great need.

I live here, too.

I want freedom

Just as you.




Shortly before the meal, we recite a series of Psalms praising God. I included my fourth and last poem here.


Welcome Morning

Anne Sexton


There is joy

in all:

in the hair I brush each morning,

in the Cannon towel, newly washed,

that I rub my body with each morning,

in the chapel of eggs I cook

each morning,

in the outcry from the kettle

that heats my coffee

each morning,

un the spoon and the chair

that cry “hello there, Anne”

each morning,

in the godhead of the table

that I set my silver, plate, cup upon

each morning.


All this is God,

right here in my pea-green house

each morning

and I mean,

though often I forget,

to give thanks,

to faint down by the kitchen table

in a prayer of rejoicing

as the holy birds at the kitchen window

peck into their marriage of seeds.


So while I think of it,

let me paint a thank-you on my palm

for this God, this laughter of the morning,

lest it go unspoken.


The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,

dies young.


I’m hanging onto these poems for next year. We’ll probably read at least some of them again, just like some of the recipes we’ve added over the years, and have become a part of our tradition.



Second Thoughts

September 7, 2013


A funny thing happened to me on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

This is not, typically, a day I relish. I have already done the first day. I’ve admired the Torah scrolls and the clergy in their white regalia. I have grooved on the special melodies and savored the once-a-year prayers. I’ve dipped my apple in honey and shared the festive meal with friends.

Enough already! Who has time to go through it all over again? I have work to do.

This year, I’ve got a new writing project that’s just starting to gel. At its core is a mother who has become estranged from her grown son. I don’t know what came between them, or what the separation means to him. I just know that her heartbreak drives her to do things she wouldn’t otherwise do. How can I figure out where this is going when these holidays keep interfering with my work schedule?

But I had agreed to help out at the second-day service. And even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have felt right staying home. And so back to synagogue I went, to repeat exactly the same experience I’d had the day before.

Except it wasn’t the exactly the same.

For one thing, on the first day I’d been upstairs in the beautiful main sanctuary, with the senior rabbi and the cantor, accompanied by a professional chorus. On the second day I was downstairs in the not-so-pretty social hall, with the junior rabbi and my friend Hinda, who is a cantor-in-training. Different room, different people. But even if they’d been the same, it would have been different.

Rituals are like rivers—you can’t step in the same one twice.

The Rosh Hashanah service lasts about four hours. The funny thing happened to me in the last hour, around the point where I’d started flipping forward in the prayer book to see how much more I had to endure. I was tired of standing and more than ready for lunch. We had reached the remembrance section of the shofar service – readings and songs leading up to the blasts of the ram’s horn.

On the first day, I’d been riveted in anticipation. Today the shofar was yesterday’s news. I was spacing out, letting the music wash over me, when a new melody snagged my attention. The tune was so sad and lovely. And Hinda sang it so dearly, tenderly embracing each word. My Hebrew is spotty at best, but I understood “Ephraim” – the name of someone’s child. I glanced down at the English.

Is not Ephraim my precious son, my beloved child? Even when I reproach him, I remember him with tenderness. My heart yearns for him. Surely I shall show him mercy, says the Lord.

The words took my breath away. That was my character speaking, the one whose story I’ve been trying to figure out. They’re not her exact words, but they express perfectly the core of her heartbreak.

They’re the words of a parent who can’t give up on a child, can’t stop hoping he’ll return, no matter how far he has strayed or how long he’s been gone or how unlikely it is that he’ll come back. On a more mundane scale, they’re the words of any parent who has ever longed to comfort her child even as she metes out the punishment he justly deserves. The poignancy moved me to tears.

Later, when I tried to explain the moment to my husband, I realized I wasn’t actually certain who Ephraim was, or what he had done that was so bad. So I did some research.

Turns out Ephraim is the second son of Joseph. In Genesis, Joseph brings him and his older brother Manasseh to their blind grandfather Jacob to be blessed. When Jacob puts his hand on the head of second-born Ephraim and begins reciting the blessing for the first-born, Joseph tries to move his father’s hand to Manasseh’s head. But Jacob insists he knows what he’s doing — while Manasseh will be great, Ephraim will be greater.

As Sabbath begins on Friday night, parents traditionally bless their children. The formula for sons is, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”

The verse from the shofar service comes from the prophet Jeremiah, generations after Genesis. “Ephraim” refers to Ephraim’s descendants, who separated themselves from the rest of Israel. In later years, “Ephraim” was understood as all Jews living in exile—a tragedy that was seen as divine punishment for the people’s sins. Reading the verse today, on Rosh Hashanah, casts “Ephraim” as  a metaphor for the individual embarking on the annual road to repentance.

Jeremiah’s message is meant to console and encourage. No matter how far you have strayed, the prophet says, God loves you like a good parent, and is rooting for you to come around. The message is so central to Rosh Hashanah that on the second day of the holiday it appears not only during the shofar service, but also at the end of a much longer excerpt from Jeremiah read during the first hour of services.

For years, I have been coming to services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Every year I have heard that verse not once, but twice. And yet, this year was the first time I really heard it. But not in the way Jeremiah or the rabbis who constructed the high holiday services intended.

Does that mean I got it wrong? I don’t think so.

The point of Rosh Hashanah is to encourage us to try to be better people. In the words of the prayer book, that’s called returning to God. For me, it means nurturing within myself those same good qualities traditional Judaism ascribes to God. Seen through that lens, the verse about Ephraim becomes a model for forgiveness. It’s a reminder that everyone – the jerk who cut me off on the highway, the voter who supported the wrong candidate, the editor who doesn’t appreciate my writing – was once someone’s beloved child.

What’s true in life also holds when it comes to writing. When I get back to working on my story, I’ll see what would happen if I made the son the protagonist. In life and in fiction, one of the best ways to understand a situation is to picture it from the other guy’s point of view.

Getting the Treatment

May 30, 2013


A couple of weeks back, I taught a class at my synagogue about prayer without God. We discussed the Mi Sheberach, the healing prayer. How can it be meaningful to ask an entity you consider imaginary to take care of a real person with an all-too-real illness? The question sparked some lively discussion. And it really hit home with me.

At the beginning of April, I was diagnosed with polycythemia vera — a congenital condition in which the body produces too many red blood cells. I began my treatments right away, giving up a pint of blood once a week. Some of these blood-lettings have gone perfectly smoothly—a gentle poke of the needle, twenty minutes in the chair, and I’m done. Other sessions have been more problematic—hardened veins, thick blood, operator error. Between procedures, I felt washed out for a few days, and have watched sores and bruises develop and disappear on my arms. I have also seen my hemoglobin count inch down, from its high starting point of just over 19, towards its target, somewhere between 14 and 15.

I didn’t talk about my condition in class. But it sure was on my mind. And both the class and my condition were on my mind the next time I was in synagogue and the rabbi invited congregants to come forward for the Mi Sheberach and mention the names of friends and loved ones who were ill.

I’m pretty sure my name wasn’t mentioned. I’m pretty sure I didn’t want it to be. But standing at my pew, I decided to pray for myself, following the advice I had offered in class.

I started by bringing to mind the people I have shared waiting rooms and elevators and treatment rooms with at the different cancer centers where I have seen various hematologists. I always feel a bit sheepish, accepting the extra kindness I’m offered at these places, even though I’m dealing with so much less than so many other people there.

I pictured the woman in the wheelchair, weeping in the arms of her grown son. The young man with skeletal limbs. The kid as pale as parchment leaning on his walker as he chatted with his mother, his breath shallow and labored, his voice muffled by his surgical mask. The dazed expressions of patients new to their conditions. The turbans and hats and wigs. I don’t know any of these people’s names, or very much at all about what they’re going through. But I pictured them in turn, and wished them well.

Next, I thought about the doctors who diagnosed me and prescribed my treatment, who monitor my progress and answer my questions. The nurses who carry out the actual blood-letting. The woman in the blood labs. The one who checks my weight and blood pressure. The one who brings around juice and snacks. The receptionists who check me in and snap the ID around my wrist. The valets who park my car.

By the time the Mi Sheberach had ended, I felt myself surrounded by a network of people whose days are devoted to caring for those who are ill, providing cures or health when it’s possible, and when it’s not, offering comfort. I felt profoundly comforted, and more spiritually uplifted than I had in a long time.

On Wednesday I drove back to the hospital for what would be my last treatment before our long-planned trip to Slovenia and Austria. My doctor would be stopping by the treatment room to give me the final go-ahead.

I left my car with the valet. Checked in with the receptionist. Went to the blood lab for my weekly test. Had my weight and blood pressure measured. At each step in the now familiar routine, I remembered my Mi Sheberach.


I settled into my treatment room to wait for the lab results. Kate, the same compassionate, highly competent nurse who has been drawing my blood for the last six weeks, topped off my water bottle .

Fifteen minutes later, my doctor arrived. He perched on the window sill, and Kate pulled up a chair. My labs had come back and my hemoglobin was 14. “We’re not going to take any blood today,” my doctor said. “The treatment worked. I told you Kate could do it!”

This is hardly the end of it. I’ll go back in two weeks. I expect that my numbers will have inched back up, and I’ll need to have my blood drawn. After that I’ll be getting regular blood tests, and phlebotomies as needed.

But this respite feels like a gift. This time tomorrow, I’ll be on my way to the airport.

Prayer Without God

May 16, 2013

IMG_6567Saturday morning often finds me in synagogue. I like the minor-key melodies, the music of the Hebrew, the ancient echoes of the archaic liturgy. I go for the comforts of ritual and community, and the subtle dramas that unfold across the seasons. Setting my life aside for those hours restores me, even as I spend much of that time wondering why I’m there.

What’s the point of praying when you don’t believe in God? That was the focus of a class I taught at my synagogue Tuesday night.

We began by considering the Amidah, a silent prayer that follows the form of a subject petitioning a ruler to grant wisdom, forgiveness, justice, and other good things. As a private meditation, the Amidah encourages personal interpretation. The praying atheist can make sense of it by turning it inward. Rather than asking an external power for forgiveness she might consider how to make right wrongs she has done, or cultivate her capacity to forgive others.

I closed the session by talking about retooling traditional texts to reflect one’s beliefs. I gave the example of the Sheva Brachot – the Seven Blessings at the center of the Jewish wedding – which we reinterpreted when my daughter got married. Rather than saying blessed be God for creating man in his image, we said blessed be compassion, graciousness, patience, kindness and truth—attributes the Bible ascribes to God, and values a praying atheist might strive for.

The prayer that generated the most discussion in class was the Mi Sheberach, the healing prayer. When it’s time to say the Mi Sheberach at my synagogue here in Providence, the rabbi invites anyone with a friend or relative who is ill to come forward and offer their name. Between a dozen and thirty people quietly walk to the front of the room and form a line facing the congregation. The cantor chants in Hebrew, May the One who blessed our ancestors—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah—bless and heal the one who is ill. There he pauses, as the rabbi walks from person to person, and each one inserts a name.

When the list is complete the cantor finishes the prayer, asking God to show compassion upon those who are ill, to restore, strengthen and enliven them, and to send them a complete healing—not just of the body, but also of the soul. Of all the prayers the atheist in me has trouble saying, the Mi Sheberach bothers me most. It just feels so, well, superstitious, to make such a specific request, about specific people who are not even there to hear it. And it gets worse when you consider the formulation used to name those who are ill. In just about all other contexts, my Hebrew name is Ruth daughter of Isaac (my father’s Hebrew name.) In the Mi Sheberach, I would be referred to as the daughter of my mother.

Why? One explanation is that it’s best to pray using the most definite facts available, and maternity is easier to verify than paternity. Another explanation is that the person who needs healing requires zchoot—merit—either by their own deeds or their parents’, and mothers are likely to have more zchoot than men, for reasons I won’t go into here.

Both these explanations point out problems, which Harold Kushner describes vividly in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. “Do I…really believe in a God who has the power to cure malignancies and influence the outcome of surgery, and will do that only if the right person recites the right words in the right language? And will God let a person die because a stranger, praying on her behalf, got some of the words wrong? Who among us could respect or worship a God whose implicit message was ‘I could have made your mother healthy again, but you didn’t plead and grovel enough’?”

These questions should trouble even committed theists. They certainly trouble me. But what troubles me more is how many intelligent, reasonable people, including respected physicians, participate in the Mi Shiberach. What troubles me most is that I do it, too. Help me figure out why I do it, I asked my class.

Because you’re feeling powerless, and feels like doing something,” someone pointed out.

“It reminds you to think about the person, and to consider what you might be able to do for them,” someone else said.

“The spectacle of all those people standing up there, worrying about loved ones who are ill, makes the whole congregation think about the fact that people need healing, and reminds us of the need for compassion,” a third person said.

I wrapped up the discussion with a third explanation I have seen for why we use the mother’s name in the prayer. We use it because the prayer addresses the Shechinah, God’s caring, nurturing and sustaining aspect. The mother’s name is also connected to the concept of mercy, which in Hebrew, rachamim, has the same root as womb. A theist praying the Mi Sheberach might picture God as a caring mother. An atheist might turn the prayer inward, and focus on his own role as nurturer and sustainer.

As a parent, I have plenty of experience soothing hurts. The connection between mothering and sustaining was most obvious when I breastfed my children. Anyone who has done this knows the sensation of “let down,” the chemical tingle as the milk begins to flow. It can be triggered unexpectedly, such as when you hear someone else’s baby crying. Even after I stopped nursing, I felt that tingling again from time to time. But it grew less and less frequent. Then, ten years after I weaned my younger child, my mother became ill. I called her hospital room, heard the helplessness in her voice, and felt my milk letting down. Nursing is nursing. The next time I feel moved to pray the Mi Sheberach, I’ll remember that moment.

Embarrassment of Riches

March 31, 2013


I’m at the supermarket, loading my groceries onto the tabloids-and-batteries end of the conveyor belt. At the other end, a 40-ish woman is ringing up her order. It’s a small order, which is why I chose this check-out line. I’m not really paying attention to her. I’m reading a headline about Camilla Bowles’ drinking problem (who knew?) and I’m carefully arranging my purchases—the wild-caught salmon beside the milk, the skin cream with the razor blades and antiseptic lotion, the fresh veggies together, the fancy whole bean coffee near the parchment paper—when I realize that something irregular is happening at the register.

The woman is asking to have her total repeated. I’m pretty sure I hear the cashier say, “Seven eighty.” And then I see the woman reaching into one of her bags and handing the cashier two cartons of eggs. Neither the shopper nor the cashier makes a big deal of it. The shopper doesn’t act especially upset, and the cashier doesn’t seem particularly surprised. He just sets the eggs aside and punches in some numbers.

Then he holds up a coupon and announces, “This is expired.”

This time, the woman visibly sighs. “Okay,” she says. “Better put this back, too.” And she hands the cashier a small tub of cream cheese.

By now, it begins to occur to me that I could do something for this woman. I could pay for her eggs and her cream cheese. And maybe I should. But how? Do I give her the money? Do I give it to the cashier? I don’t want to embarrass her, I tell myself. No one has so much as looked in my direction, so I would have to intrude on their transaction. Admit that I’ve been listening. What should I say? And how much does she need? My money is snapped inside my wallet, and my wallet is zipped inside my purse.

While I’m standing there, trying to figure out what to do, the woman takes her remaining groceries and leaves.

I step up to the cashier and he rings me up. My order comes to almost exactly ten times what the woman ahead of me spent. I swipe my credit card, hit “yes,” sign, and leave with my bags. As I drive up Warwick Avenue, I see the woman waiting at the bus stop.

Did I mention that all this takes place on the fifth night of Passover? Four nights earlier, I presided over my family’s seder. We raised the matzo and recited, “This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” When I was picking readings from various haggadahs, I’d made sure to include one that interpreted the Festival of Freedom as encompassing freedom from want, and another that reminded us that it’s our duty to help make others free.

As I drive home from the supermarket and put away my purchases, the irony weighs more and more heavily on my mind. I keep replaying the scene in the check-out aisle, trying to picture myself putting my money where my mouth is. But even in my imagination, I fall short. The problem, I tell myself, is that I don’t know the right words to say.

So I ask Facebook.

It turns out a lot of my friends have been in this situation – on both the giving and the receiving end. Some found it embarrassing, and some still feel bad about failing to act, like me. But lots of folks seem to find it pretty easy to help a needy stranger. The key, they all agree, is to keep it light. Talk about “paying it forward,” they advise. They suggest I claim that someone else once did the same thing for me—whether or not this is true. Or I could say nothing at all. Just give the woman a smile, and the cashier the money.

These are all great ideas. But will I use them? I don’t know.

I’m great at being charitable in the abstract. Write a check or fill in a form on a website, and I’m done. And if the woman at the supermarket had turned to me for help, I’m pretty sure I would have been glad to give her what she needed. But step forward, uninvited?

I told myself I was concerned about causing her embarrassment. And I was. But I’m pretty sure that I was also worried about the embarrassment to myself. The embarrassment of admitting to someone who doesn’t have enough that I have more than enough. And the more general embarrassment of crossing the invisible barrier that makes us strangers. Of not minding my own business.

If this situation arises again, at least I’ll have a script. I hope I’ll have the nerve to use it. And if I balk, I hope I’ll remember that as difficult as doing the right thing might seem to me at the time, it’s a lot harder to deal with the regret.

Next to Godliness

March 8, 2013


I cleaned my kitchen floor the other day. This may not seem noteworthy to you. But to me, sad to say, it is.

It’s not like we’ve been wallowing in filth. We don’t have kids or pets, and we take shoes off at the door, so we don’t track in a lot of dirt from outside. When we notice a major spill, we’re pretty quick to sweep it up. Sometimes I even take out the broom just for good measure, in case there’s something I’m not seeing.

Even so, the floor was starting to bother even me. But even if it hadn’t, I could tell by looking at the calendar that a cleaning was in the cards. Just not quite yet.

Passover is a little over two weeks away. I don’t prepare for the holiday by scouring my oven or covering my counters with foil, and we don’t have a special set of Passover kitchenware. But I do clear out all the foods we’ll be abstaining from during the holiday. And I give the kitchen its annual deep cleaning. The point of this cleaning isn’t pragmatic. It’s religious. I would clean before Passover whether the kitchen needed it or not. Not that the question has ever come up.

But now, two weeks too early for the ritual cleaning, the floor was starting to bug me. And then, while I was making breakfast, the juicer went crazy and sprayed orange pulp all over. And then, just in case I still hadn’t gotten the message, right when I was about to start my day’s work at my computer, the power went out.

The story I’m now working on is tentatively entitled “Beshert,” which is Yiddish for “destiny” or “intended.” I could have used my laptop until the battery ran down. And then I could have gone to a coffee shop or the library. Or written longhand, of all things. Instead, I decided the power outage was a sign that cleaning my floor now, ahead of my pre-Passover cleaning, was beshert.

I squirted the soap into a sink full of warm water, took the sponge-mop from its hook in the back hall, and began.

While I do my Passover cleaning, I have the holiday on my mind. I review the seder menu, and figure out my cooking schedule. I consider who will be at the table, and parcel out parts. Who will play the evil son? Who will ask the four questions? In a good year, I might get beyond logistics and pay attention to the spiritual intent of what I’m doing. I’m not just cleaning the floor, I’ll remind myself. I’m remembering bondage. I’m celebrating freedom. I’m welcoming spring.

Now I wasn’t cleaning for Passover. I was simply cleaning. But it wasn’t that simple.

I was feeling the slide of the sponge on the linoleum. I was watching the wet progress across the floor. I was hearing the quiet. The no-hum of the refrigerator. The no-rumble of the furnace. The no-option of turning on music. And I was letting my thoughts flow where they would.

I thought about my dear friend Chris, who died three years ago. Hanging above her kitchen sink was a Buddhist teaching about washing dishes. I’m pretty sure it was Thich Nat Hanh, “While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”

I thought about my good friend Roma, a California artist whose work explores intersections between the sacred and the mundane. Her contemplative images of hands loading a dishwasher and cleaning a toilet hang opposite my desk.

I thought about the saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” and wondered if it is.

I don’t believe in God, per se, but I do believe in godliness. That distinction, pointed out to me by my friend Rabbi Kaunfer, comes from theologian Arthur Green. The idea, as I understand it, is to approach religious practice (in this case Jewish practice) not as worship of an imagined divine being, but as striving to emulate the positive attributes traditionally associated with “God.” Those qualities include things like compassion, patience, kindness and forgiveness. Cleanliness? Not so much.

On the other hand, cleaning—or weeding or kneading, painting walls, splitting wood, or engaging in any number of mundane, necessary tasks—and doing it with the right mindset, can become a meditation. A way to resent one’s inner compass.

And even if the chore doesn’t produce any spiritual breakthroughs, when you’re done, you’ve got a clean floor.


Feasting at the Fast

October 5, 2012

For the second time in three days, I dreamed about eating at Yom Kippur services. In both dreams, services were in full swing, the clergy resplendent in their special white robes, when I realized I wasn’t sitting in a pew, but at a table for eight, set for a banquet. While the cantor continued his fervent chanting, servers brought dinner, and everyone dug in. The cantor looked annoyed, but not surprised – certainly less surprised than I was.

In the first dream, I stuffed my face, like everyone else. (I don’t remember the menu, besides a crusty baguette.) On the dream’s second pass, I was the only one at the table who didn’t indulge.

What does it mean, doctor?

My former therapist, who wasn’t into archetypes or psychoanalysis, tended to see this sort of question as an opening for more free-form introspection. “How did the dream leave you feeling?” he might ask.

And I might answer, “In the first instance, guilty. And the second time, when I abstained? Annoyed. And a little bit self-righteous, maybe. And then guilty, for judging the people around me.”

“Good for you,” I can imagine my therapist saying at this point, smiling that warm, between-you-and-me smile of his. “Even though the second time you were the one doing the right thing, you still  figured out a way to feel guilty about it.”

And then we would probably dive back into our ongoing conversation about guilt – what triggers it, its uses and (more often) uselessness, and what other emotions it might mask.

But what if my therapist’s questions weren’t about feelings, but metaphors, plot points, imagery and motifs? What if  his question in response to my question were, “How might you use these scenes in an essay, a work of fiction, a poem?”

Then I would have to say, “It depends.”

In an essay, I could use the twin dreams to illustrate spiritual indifference in today’s society. Or the social irrelevance of today’s religious institutions. A more personal essay might delve into my own passionate ambivalence around religion.

In a short story or a novel, the scenes might emphasize my role as outsider – my failure to conform with the service in the first dream, and with my co-congregants in the second. I might build in a moment where I look into the face of one of the clergy and get a glimpse of understanding, and from that an unexpected connection.

In a poem, the feast and the fast could be symbols. The diners might be feasting on the substance of the service, tanking up on prayer or tradition or regret. Or the unstoppable service could be the background of wrongdoing or good intentions that’s always there, as we blithely go on passing the bread. Living our lives.

Or, how about this? In a blog post about writing, I could use the service to stand for form – the rules that govern different genres, the structures and basic story lines we expect. And I could use the meal to demonstrate what happens when a piece breaks the rules and confounds expectations. A dream that was only about sitting through Yom Kippur services wouldn’t be worth telling. And neither would a dream that was only about eating. Put the two together, though, and you’ve got something interesting – something that opens the way to new meaning.

Baby Lust

September 18, 2012

I read from the Prophets at Rosh Hashanah services this week. I had been practicing the portion for more than a month, learning to pronounce the Hebrew fluidly, and to chant the tropes melodically. I read the English translation and studied the Hebrew enough to know what I was saying, so I could sing with some expression, distinguishing the barren woman’s weeping from the joyous birth announcement. I wanted to give the congregation the sense of hearing a story, even if a good many of them wouldn’t be able to follow the exact words.

Some portions from the Prophets are poetry, and some are prose. The one we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah is definitely prose, as classic an example of storytelling as anything in the Bible.

Once upon a time, there was a man called Elkanah, who had two wives, Peninah and Hannah. Peninah had children, but Hannah did not. Every year, Elkanah took his family to Shiloh, where he offered a sacrifice to the Lord. Afterwards, when he shared the left-over bar-b-q with his family, he would give a single portion of it to Peninah and each of her children. But he would give Hannah a double portion, because he loved her, and he felt bad that God had closed her womb. When Peninah saw what was happening, she would ridicule and taunt Hannah for being infertile, and Hannah would weep and be unable to eat.

And so it went, year after year, until Hannah finally couldn’t take it anymore. She left the family picnic and went to the temple, where she wept and prayed, vowing that if God would give her a son, she would dedicate the child to God for his entire life. Long story short, Hannah finally conceived, and bore a son (it’s always a son in these stories; I would love to read the story of the long longed-for daughter). Anyway, Hannah named the child Samuel, and as soon as he was weaned, she brought him to Shiloh and presented him to the priest there, saying, “So long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”

When I’m preparing a portion, I practice once a day, usually first thing. I find the ritual soothing. I like being able to learn without having to make any decisions. I like watching my progress, hearing the melody and the words flow more and more smoothly, and seeing the meaning of the Hebrew gradually emerge. I like having an assignment – a very specific, short-term goal I know I can reach. And although I don’t make a conscious effort to engage with the text, I like considering the questions that naturally arise.

Here’s one. How does Samuel feel about all this? Is it okay for a woman to determine her future, hypothetical child’s career based on her own frustration? Heard through the filter of today’s attitudes, with our stress on individual fulfillment and self-determination, that approach to parenting seems awfully proscriptive and restrictive.

When I mentioned this to a rabbi friend, he reminded me that Samuel went on to become a prophet of Israel, advisor to two kings. “Not too shabby,” he said. Granted. But does the fact that Hannah’s action had a good result mean it was a good thing for her to do? What if Samuel had ended up abusing his position at the temple? Would that have made the exact same action not okay?

Another question. If Hannah was so desperate for a child, why was she so willing to give him away? Introducing the portion in shul, the rabbi described Hannah’s rival Peninah as a bully. Maybe Hannah didn’t want to have a child so badly because she wanted to have a child, but because she wanted Peninah to shut up. The text doesn’t say anything about Hannah actually longing for motherhood, unless one assumes that all childless women wish they were not.

Or maybe, in the world of the Bible, the point of bearing children isn’t to create a family, but to leave a legacy.

Or maybe I’m reading this whole story too literally. Maybe, even though the portion reads like prose, it really is poetry, after all.

This portion is read on Rosh Hashanah. New Year’s Day. The Birthday of the World. Seen in this context, maybe Hannah’s longed-for baby is the same dimpled, diapered, cartoon infant we use to personify the secular New Year.

Maybe we shouldn’t think of Hannah as yearning to give birth to an actual child, necessarily, but simply as yearning to give birth. To be creative / productive / leave a mark on the world. And maybe we shouldn’t think of her as turning an actual child into an actual priest or whatever, but as dedicating her efforts to a good that’s greater than herself.

Maybe Hannah is making the same sort of New Year’s resolution lots of us make, promising, if I can accomplish this goal / complete this work / master this skill / meet this challenge / survive this ordeal, I will use my success to make the world a better place.

It’s really just a question of translation.


August 2, 2012

My doorstop-sized Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines ephemera as “a genus of mayfly with shining transparent wings and strong functional legs.” But ephemera also refers to transitory printed material not intended to be preserved. Would letters from teachers to their students’ parents fall under that definition? Not in my family.

I recently came across my old report cards. They were inside an envelope that was inside a shopping bag, one of the two shopping bags I carried back to Vermont 13 years ago, when my siblings and I sorted the contents of our childhood home. The bags were stuffed with old letters and children’s drawings and marked-up drafts of documents and other papers I’d gleaned from my parents’ desks — as well as a crumbling cardboard folder I’d found in my parents’ attic, filled with the brittle, yellowed drafts of newspaper columns, funny poems and song lyrics my mother had rescued 40 years earlier from the desk in my grandfather’s dental office.

But about those report cards. They run from kindergarten through high school, 1962-1975, and come from three different school systems – the public schools in Montclair, New Jersey; the Hebrew School at Temple Shomrei Emunah; and the UNESCO-run Ecole Active Bilingue in Paris, where we lived from 1964 to 1966. That’s a lot of different teachers weighing in on my past. Their judgments are notably consistent.

I was a good student, but not great. Not surprisingly, I did best in reading and writing – although my spelling and handwriting were reliably terrible. I don’t remember Miss Wadman giving me that failing grade in Health Ed in the fall of 7th grade, and that’s a pity, because it probably makes a good story.

One story that does come through loud and clear, so to speak, is my behavior.

“Talkative in class!” my English teacher in France comments in October, 1965.

“A very pleasant student but still very talkative,” she notes one month later.

That same month, my main classroom teacher warns, “Attention aux bavardages!” – pay attention to chit-chat.

Back in the States, under “habits and attitudes,” I get top marks for things like good posture and working well with others. But I fall down on “practices self-control.”

“Although Ruth is doing highly satisfactory work at this time, I feel she should be more attentive and practice better self-control,” writes Mr. Chartofillis, my 5th-grade teacher at Nishuane School.

“Ruth is a bright girl who could easily be an outstanding student. It is regrettable that she doesn’t apply her abilities to her studies,” writes Mr. Schwartzmer, my 6th-grade Hebrew School teacher. He lists four actions my parents should take to bring me up to snuff, including, “Encourage to behave better in class – not to talk too much. Particularly not to talk back to teacher.” 

“Ruth would do well to avoid sitting next to anyone she feels she may want to talk with,” writes my 7th-grade Hebrew School teacher, Mr. Plavin.

Oh, what a pain I must have been! I was so much more excited about so many things besides what was happening at the blackboard.

But it wasn’t all bad. In the early elementary school years, the word “imaginative” comes up a lot. My 4th-grade Hebrew School teacher, Mr. Bordowitz, actually says that my “genial personality and sense of humor add to the pleasure of teaching” me. Thank you, Mr. Bordowitz! I think I loved you.

But the comments that make me happiest, all these years later, are from my 5th-grade Hebrew School teacher, Mr. Asekoff. First he says how smart and creative I am (what’s not to love there?), and he mentions my progress in Hebrew and history. Then he says this:

She participates quite actively in classroom discussions, quite often making important and insightful remarks. She is interested in the material dealt with, and often makes provocative remarks that influence both the other students and me.

What makes these comments different from all other comments? This is Hebrew School, remember. We’re discussing the Bible. And here is a teacher who obviously encourages discussion. Questioning. Exactly the sort of active engagement that brought me back to Judaism as an adult – the same attitude I tried to foster when I taught Torah at my shul in Vermont, when my own kids were well past the 5th grade. I had long forgotten Mr. Asekoff. But what I learned in his classroom must have stayed with me.

So who is this teacher? His note is signed with his full name: Stanley L. Asekoff. Most of our teachers at Shomrei Emunah were rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Guessing that he was from this group, I googled “Rabbi Stanley Asekoff.” And there he was – as of last year, the emeritus rabbi at B’nai Shalom, a “contemporary conservative” synagogue in West Orange, New Jersey. A few clicks later, I had his email address, and within a few minutes I had sent him a message.

Were you my Hebrew School teacher? I wrote in the subject line. Then I explained who I was, and quoted from the comments on that report card. I concluded, I want to thank the person who wrote this. I have mostly bad memories of Hebrew School, but have gone on to be active in my congregations in Vermont, and now in Providence. I can only think that someone who encouraged me to question and discuss religious matters when I was a kid must have planted the seed for my loving engagement with Judaism today.

I received a very gracious reply. Although he doesn’t remember me any better than I remember him, I had found the right person, and he appreciated my note, and was touched to learn that some of the seeds he had planted, taking it on faith that one day they would lead to good results, had had that result.

What do I take from all this? That one person’s ephemera may be someone else’s permanent archive. So choose your words with care. And that even a creature as transient as a mayfly may have shining wings and strong functional legs.

Home is where

June 24, 2012

Yesterday was the last Shabbat my good friend Joel spent as a rabbi at my synagogue. It was a sad morning. Sad to sit in my usual seat, going through the same order of prayers and rituals and readings – sit down, stand up, sing, listen – knowing that each predictable step in the service was bringing us that much closer to closure. I could only imagine how it was all hitting him, sitting up there in his chair beside the ark, looking out for the last time at the community that has come to love him in the four short years since he arrived.

By the time he had finished delivering his farewell sermon, half the room was in tears, including Joel.

But it was more complicated than that. Sure, the Seltzers are moving away. But they’re going to a place they know and love, and starting a new professional adventure.

They’re giving up a sure thing in order to grab a chance-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sort of like what David and I did five years ago, when we gave up our comfortable life in Vermont to try something new in Rhode Island.

Though, in our case, we weren’t going to a place we already knew.

I remember finding my way around my new neighborhood, taking it on faith that one day each storefront and house would be so familiar I would hardly notice them. I remember how proud I was the first time I managed to drive to the mall and back without making a wrong turn. I remember seeing two women chatting in a coffee shop, and telling myself, one day that will be you.

I knew this wouldn’t happen on its own, though. Sure, we’d managed to make friends in the other places we’ve lived. But this time it would be harder, especially for me. Our kids were already out of the house, so they wouldn’t be finding other children with parents we could bond with. And I didn’t even have a job to go to. How do you become a part of the community if all you do all day is sit at home, writing? This was one big reason why we started showing up regularly at synagogue.

And it worked. I remember looking around the sanctuary, being struck by how all those strangers seemed to know each other. Within a few weeks, we were recognizing people. Driving home, we would rehearse the roster of who had been there, identifying the different Rhode Islanders according to which Vermonters we had initially mistaken them for. (It’s uncanny how many people resemble other people.)

Soon we were attaching names and salient details to the faces. I started occupying myself during services by counting the number of people I could identify. Pretty soon, I realized I wasn’t just picking out the people I recognized. I could also tell who was new, or only showed up occasionally. Around that same time, I started forgetting to count.

Five years later, I’m still a newcomer here. And I still miss Vermont and our friends there very much. But this is home in a lot of ways. How? The perennials we planted are filling out. We have favorite beaches and restaurants. I don’t patronize the Stop and Shop on Warwick Avenue because it replaced a plant nursery I loved.

Most important, this is home because the people we used to identity by a few surface traits, and were able to recognize because they looked like other people, have become our friends. They’re people we share running jokes and disputes with. People we could call in an emergency. People whose celebrations and sorrows we have shared. People who look like nobody but themselves.

And now, as we wish Joel and Eliana good luck in their next chapter, there’s this. Home is the place where you stand when you wave goodbye .