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Some thoughts about grief

So we’re at the point where the National Review and the New York Times are attacking Joe Biden for how he grieves.

I suppose it’s only fair to criticize president for being too human; after all, we criticized his predecessor for being too inhuman.

If one does want to engage seriously with the world of parental grief, three of our authors are in that very sad category of bereaved parents, for which Hebrew has a more redolent word, שכול.

B. J. Yudelson’s memoir, “With an Outstretched Arm,” encompasses the arc of her life, from growing up very Reform in the South to being a grandmother and a member of an Orthodox congregation in the snowy north.


The dramatic center of that arc was the Friday night where her 13-year-old daughter was struck and killed by a drunk driver while walking home from shul at an NCSY Shabbaton on February 6, 1981.

(Note that the @nytimes got both Ruth’s last name and age wrong.)
Our favorite review: “Buy this book NOW, curl up on your couch with a box of tissues and this book. I have not been so moved and so deeply touched by a book in a long time. BJ’s illustrative storytelling pulled me into her story, her experiences, her struggles and victories.”

Cover of Reaching for ComfortReaching for Comfort” opens several years after Sherri Mandell’s son Koby was murdered.

She had already written an award-winning memoir, “The Blessing of a Broken Heart.”
But her heart was still broken, because that’s the curse of being a bereaved patent.

So she embarked on a path of trying to help others. She studied to be a hospital pastoral counselor. That was a new field in Israel, where hospital clergy was there to certify kashrut, not minister to emotional needs of patients.

“Sherri Mandell has done it again with this deeply personal and profoundly moving book about caring and compassion under the most trying of conditions. Reaching for Comfort will inspire readers with its compelling prose, riveting narrative, and uplifting spirituality.”

That’s from historian, novelist, ambassador, and New Jersey native, Michael Oren.

“A poignant, deeply human look at the author’s attempt to deal with her own unspeakable pain by opening her heart to the pain of others.” That’s from an Amazon review.

(To return briefly to the political realm, which launched this thread: It’s worth highlighting the contrast between this who would “deal with [their] own unspeakable pain by opening her heart to the pain of others” and those deal with their pain by inflicting pain on others.)

Parenting on a Prayer was already finished and in the editorial pipeline when Rabbi Amy Grossblatt Pessah’s 19-year-old son Josef died, nine months after a brain cancer diagnosis.

The book looks to the siddur to find 18 principles for parenting, combining explanations of prayers with anecdotes from Amy’s years as a mother of three.

“Every page of this inspiring work is filled with lessons to live by.”
— Rabbi Naomi Levy

Obviously, the book takes on added poignancy under the cloud of Josef’s death, described in the book’s dedication and afterward. And since all parenting takes place under the shadow of the potential of this infinite grief, that works. #MashiachNow

Jay Michaelson wrote The Gate of Tears in response to the grief he felt at the death of his mother.

I’ve always wondered what B. J. Yudelson would have thought about Gate of Tears. For the first several years of Ben Yehuda Press, she proofread every book. But by the time The Gate of Tears was ready for proofing, she was too ill from the cancer that would take her life.

But I don’t have to wonder about what she would say about people criticizing Biden for he handles his grief. Or about the people at the @nytimes that decided this was a story.

(Originally tweeted by @BenYehudaPress on September 5, 2021.
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Bessie and Green in Greenwich Village

An excerpt from “You Have to Yell” by Joseph Opatoshu

Translated by Shulamith Berger


The Yiddish novel Hibru, by Joseph Opatoshu (1886–1954) portrays the professional and personal lives of teachers, young immigrant men from Eastern Europe. It is set on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1910s. The title refers to Hebrew schools, supplementary schools boys attended on Sundays and on weekday afternoons after public school was finished for the day. The Hebrew schools provided students with a Jewish education and prepared them for their bar mitzvahs. This excerpt, chapter 6 of the novel, focuses on the budding romance between Green, one of the teachers, and Bessie, the daughter of the President of the Hebrew School where Green teaches. The setting is the bohemian milieu frequented by the Jewish intelligentsia of the time.

Translated from Yiddish by Shulamith Z. Berger.
Chapter title supplied by the translator.
Thank you to Dan Opatoshu for granting permission to publish the translation.

The scene in the “Green Paw” was rollicking. From a distance, the narrow two-story building resembled a peasant’s hut. The small low-ceilinged rooms were jam-packed with people. An unpainted wooden ladder-like stairway with a handrail led to the restaurant. It swayed and groaned under the slightest weight as if it was about to snap in two. Kerosene and candle lanterns cast a dim light in the corridor. The doors in the hallway were painted with images of green animal paws and bird claws; they might have been a sorcerer’s magical handiwork. The small rooms were crowded with people seldom seen on the streets of New York. The men were dressed carelessly, with faces which betrayed worry even while they laughed. The women wore mannish clothing; at first glance, their bobbed hair and the cigarettes in their mouths made them appear to be boys dressed up. They gave the impression of people who sleep by day, and at night, when the rule of law and its obedient children slumber, they creep out of their tiny bedrooms, slink unnoticed along the tenement walls, and scurry to the Village.

Young men and women sat at tables painted green, drank, smoked, and the uproar seemed to hover over their heads like steam; it irritated their throats. Unglazed pottery, long-necked pitchers, and clay jugs hung on the walls. They looked like antiquities excavated from the depths of the earth.

The owner of the place was short and broad-shouldered. He was dressed, God alone knows why, in a capotelike Hungarian national coat with a wide green sash wrapped around his stomach, tied in a knot at the right side. The bowl of a smoking pipe, a half-circle decorated with colored beads and claws, peeked out through the fringes. As he ran from table to table with a small pipe carelessly dangling from the edge of his mouth, he took orders and chatted with each patron in that person’s native tongue.

His wife was older than he; a brunette who wore loose, loud clothing and sported strands of coins awkwardly wound around her neck and bare arms. She looked like a Spanish street singer. A black velvet band wove through her trimmed dark hair which fell over her cheeks, creating a more youthful appearance. She sat down at different tables, drank with the customers, collected money, and put it in the folds of her dress, fashioning it into a pocket.

A group of young men and women sat at a long table singing, “The Yanks are coming” to the melody of the Yiddish song – the lament of the poor yeshiva student — “Mai ka mashma lan der regn; What is the rain here to explain?” A few people sitting nearby – who weren’t Jewish – joined in.

Across from the group sat a young non-Jewish man with a woman at a small table. Both had bloodshot eyes. The man sketched the woman’s portrait on the wall. She was so thrilled she grasped his hand and kissed it. The man jumped up with a start even though he could hardly keep his balance. But no matter what the circumstances were, he couldn’t let a woman kiss his hand. He pressed his lips to hers and stammered, “You, mustn’t, a lady mustn’t…”

Ah,” the woman lifted her hand from her heart with a grand gesture, kissed him again, and proclaimed, “it’s an honor to kiss such a hand!”

The man fell to the woman’s feet, hid his hands so she wouldn’t find them, and kissed her dress. She searched for his hands, struggled with him; they landed in each other’s arms and stayed there.

The neighboring crowd didn’t even notice.

The editor of the Getsen Diner, the Pagan, sat in a corner on a mattress proofreading, surrounded by his colleagues.

When they entered Bessie stood and gaped. She looked all around, taking everything in. Anyone who saw her could tell she was here for the first time.

Someone recognized Green. Everyone at the table rose, applauded, and sang “the Yanks are coming, coming, coming…” to the Yiddish tune.

A forty-something year old man with hollow cheeks, a twinkle in his eye, and a small round saucer-like bald spot, spotted Bessie, got up to make room, and offered his hand to Green. He looked at Bessie again, and said, “Hello, Green! Why don’t you introduce me to your lady?”

If you’d give me a chance…” Green retorted, defending himself as he turned to Bessie, “Shlomo Mandel, this is Miss Schultz!”

Mandel held Bessie’s hand in his for a while. He sized her up, trying to gauge what kind of impression his name made on her, and if not for a bunch of wise guys who seated themselves at the table he would have told the young woman, who had just heard his name for the first time, that she had just been introduced to the greatest Yiddish novelist.

The crowd at the table quieted down for a while. Mandel was cheerful because a girl was sitting next to him. He exchanged glances with the others at the table and nudged Green, “Why don’t you introduce her to everyone else?” And before Green had time to answer him, Mandel took Bessie’s arm and started imitating an emcee, “This is none other than our great humorist, Moshe Hozek the Mocker; now I will introduce the so-called great Yiddish novelist, Zalkind.“

Why not the greatest?” someone called out.

Because I’m the greatest!” Mandel answered, bursting out laughing at his own witticism, and continued, “Big. Big is a painter, his paintings grace the walls of the ‘Green Paw;’ and Weiss is the greatest Yiddish critic.”

If Weiss is the greatest, then what am I?” asked a young man with blonde hair.

When I become a fan of yours, you’ll be the greatest!” Mandel laughed so hard, he fell onto his chair.

The crowd joined in the laughter. It was the first time Bessie had spent time with a group like this. She felt lucky and took every opportunity to show Green how grateful she was. She looked at the few women at the table, examined their clothing, their bearing, and was sure she could rival them all.

Mandel jingled the change in his pockets. “Guys, let’s order some wine!”

Silver coins began to fly. A pale young man with a black beard, made-up like an actor, collected the money and Mandel called loudly to the owner,

Uncle, come over here!”

The proprietor pretended not to hear, as though it was beneath his dignity to be addressed in Yiddish, and he went to other tables. Mandel gestured at the proprietress to beckon her to come over. “You speak Yiddish, don’t you?”

Yes, I learned it here.”

“Where, in the ‘Village’?”

She laughed.

But you do speak Yiddish?” Mandel stroked her hand and his eyes widened.


What’s your name?”


I mean in Yiddish?”

Regina!” She tossed her shoulders and the strands of coins clinked.

In Yiddish your name isn’t Regina, in Yiddish you’re probably Reyzel, aren’t you?” he put his arm around her, “Nu, Reyzele, how about a glass of wine?”

She twisted out of Mandel’s arms and ran off to another table where a group was about to leave.

The proprietor brought over a few pitchers of wine and some glasses. The crowd started to drink and grew even more high-spirited. While they were singing the chairs moved — seemingly of their own accord — and the men revolved around the radiant women, like flies surrounding a flame. Bessie’s fingers intertwined with Green’s; she bent over and whispered in his ear, “Is this a Jewish place?”

What else?”

But who’s that sitting on the mattress?”

That’s the editor of the Pagan.”

Of what?”

It’s a monthly journal, it’s called the Pagan.”

What is he, an Indian?”

What gave you that idea?” Green laughed.

I don’t know, Indians are idol worshippers,” Bessie was flustered.

No, he’s Jewish, we Jews deal with everything!” he squeezed her hand harder.

An almost completely gray-haired older man sat with a Jew with long hair, a born bohemian, at a small table behind Green. No one knew where he was from or what language he spoke. Green noticed that the proprietor sat down and listened to the gray-haired man talk about Edward, the English king, as if he knew him personally. When he took out a gold watch and said it was a present from the king, the proprietor hitched up his capotelike Hungarian national coat, winked at the long-haired Jew and interjected in Yiddish, “He thinks he met an idiot who believes him!”

Green pointed out the gray-haired man to Bessie,

You see the old man at the table, he’s the “gentleman” Oscar Wilde wrote about in his De Profundis. When Wilde was led to jail in shackles and the crowd jeered and spit at him, the old man was the only one who tipped his top hat and greeted him.”

A man stood in the doorway looking around. His eyes rested on the young non-Jewish man with the woman, who were sitting arm in arm. The young man, sensing someone looking at him, turned his head, his face the color of putty, and extricated himself from the woman’s arms. The man walked a few steps, stopped, and addressed the woman, “Lucy, I beg you, go home, the baby’s crying!” She didn’t answer him. With one animal-like move, he leaped at the young man, grabbed him by the throat and hit him so hard that his head jerked back, as though it was made of rubber. Then he hissed through his teeth,

You skunk! What are you doing with my wife?”

Green saw the gray-haired man take them aside and convince the woman to go home. He comforted the young man who sat and whimpered, either because he’d been beaten or because the woman was gone, and Green reminded himself of Wilde’s words, “Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that.”

An unshaven young man entered from the kitchen. Everyone had a smile ready for him, they all tried to catch his eye in order to greet him. But he didn’t look at anyone; he made his way through the crowd, went directly to Mandel and sat down. The group around the table became livelier. Now everyone knew they could now order whatever their hearts desired on the young man’s account. The proprietor and his wife stood near him taking orders and kept complimenting him effusively. The weary young man didn’t pay attention to anyone. He shooed the proprietors away and complained to Mandel, who could hardly understand him, “It’s not good to be the son of a great man! Not good!”

Go invent a telephone yourself!” Mandel suggested to him, speaking partly in Yiddish.

It won’t help!” the young man whispered into his ear, “People still won’t call me by my name, no matter what, I’ll always be known as my father’s son!”

You want to become famous?” Mandel took his hand, “I have a plan for you!”

What sort of plan?”

The theater,” Mandel began, “won’t make you famous. That’s nothing new in America. I have something else for you. Listen to me and publish a weekly Yiddish newspaper. Why are you smiling?”

They’ll all say I’m wasting my father’s money!” He planted his fists on the table and rested his chin on them.

People were dancing on the second floor, waltzing right over everyone’s heads. The thin ceiling swayed under the dancers’ feet. One hearty jump might send the boards crashing down. The crowd couldn’t stay still. People rose to the rhythm and every man searched for a woman to dance with.

Green put his arm around Bessie’s waist. Glowing, she cuddled up to him. She didn’t ask where he was leading her; she ran up to the second floor with him.

On the shining floor in a large, semi-darkened hall, a few couples danced to the beat of a waltz. A tall, thin man sat playing the piano, he looked like he was playing with his entire body.

Green flew with Bessie. She seemed so light he didn’t even feel her in his hands. He circled around, flitted with her from corner to corner; whenever he spotted an empty bench, he danced towards it, but each time a couple materialized and took the bench, so he kept whirling around.

They remained standing, looked at each other, grinned, and sat down happily. They each felt they ought to say something even though they understood each other at a glance; and Green, putting his hand on hers, asked a run-of-the-mill question, “Nu, how do I dance?”

Fine, very fine!”

A young man with a feminine waist entered with a woman.

Hello, Green!

Hello, Lifschitz!”

Lifschitz and the woman approached a bit closer; Lifschitz motioned to Green,

I’d like to introduce you: Mr. Green, a Yiddish poet, and this is Miss Mayer.”

A pleasure,” Miss Mayer repeated several times and sat next to Green, “This is the first time I’m actually meeting a Yiddish poet.”

Green was angry at himself for being flustered when he heard the woman’s name even though he wasn’t sure if she was really the millionaire Mayer’s daughter or not. He introduced Bessie, noticed that she also seemed taken aback; he was tempted to say something to offend Miss Mayer, but remained silent.

I see you’re here for the first time,” Lifschitz said. He brushed his knee with a silk glove and looked pleased with himself.

Why are you so sure?” Bessie looked at him and felt herself blush.

Simply because I’m seeing you here for the first time,” he laughed, and his full cheeks became rosy, like a girl wearing make-up.

“So you know everyone here?” Bessie forced herself to smile.

Just about everyone,” he glanced at his watch which was buckled around his wrist with a leather band, “I’ve come here three times a day for the past ten years. It’s been through five owners during that time and the crowd, you understand, is a select one, so a new face stands out! I’ll show you, I just walked around with Miss Mayer,” he leaned towards Bessie as he spoke, cupped his hand over his mouth and lowered his voice, “she’s the youngest daughter of Mayer the millionaire. Everyone looked at us. They recognized immediately that she’s not from the ‘Village.’ Yes, I know everyone here. Most of them don’t know that my name is Lifschitz, they all call me Beethoven.”

So you’re a composer?” Bessie asked him.

No,” he made a face and looked like an embarrassed girl, “I’m a critic. If you’re interested in music and read Di Tsayt, The Time, you should know my name. I write twice a week under the name ‘Leo.’”

Bessie felt guilty since she’d never heard his name, reddened, was uncomfortable that she had blushed and stammered, “Read it, of course I’ve read it! That’s you? I’m pleased to meet you!”

Lifschitz melted with pride, started to get up, and playfully held his hand out to Bessie. He looked like a young woman who had just received her first compliment. His thoughts were confused. He couldn’t sort them out; they started in the middle, like the elusive origin of a string hidden in the midst of a ball of twine. He realized the silence was lasting a trifle too long; it might interfere with Miss Mayer’s conversation with Green. He started saying whatever entered his head, “Yes, Green and I are old friends! I was also a Hebrew teacher years ago, but it’s good I’m through with that. I don’t understand how I managed then. Now I spend more on cigarettes than I earned as a teacher! I argue with Green – what do you need it for? Green is a very talented person. I know a lot of people and if he weren’t so stubborn, I would have already found something for him! Let’s not kid ourselves, if I hadn’t torn myself out of the East Side at the right time, what would’ve become of me? A comrade! The same fate as thousands of others, who throw away their best years, ruin their careers, so a few demagogues, their leaders, can live like noblemen!”

According to you, Mr. Lifschitz,” Bessie interrupted, “there are no honest people!”

There are, but not among leaders of political parties, every leader, almost without exception, is a demagogue! I’m convinced that the most genuine, interesting people are tramps and millionaires. They both don’t need to flatter anyone, they don’t need favors from anyone… Yes, what was I getting at?” Lifschitz wrinkled his forehead, “Yes, last week I was invited to Hildheim for dinner. He’s the youngest brother of the copper magnates. During the meal he read poems by a young Serbian poet, interesting poems – I happened to have Green’s most recent cycle of poems with me and read it to him. What should I tell you? He couldn’t believe someone could write poems like that in Yiddish and pleaded with me to bring Green to him. You’d think that’s good, eh? Is there a better opportunity? Green claims that if Hildheim wants to see him, let Hildheim go to him, he also has an address. I tell you it’s crazy! Me, for one reader like Hildheim I’d give away a few hundred readers from the East-Side! But never mind,” Lifschitz smiled, “You’ve got to forgive Green! You know he’s a great poet?”

Of course I know!” Bessie answered proudly as she blushed.

I also write poetry,” Lifschitz threw in nonchalantly, as though he wasn’t hinting at anything. “It’s only for myself, I don’t publish. By the way, do you have time tomorrow?”

Why, what’s happening?”

Tomorrow evening Caruso is singing La Bohème.”

I know. He’s performing in the stadium at City College. But I couldn’t get tickets anymore.”

If you don’t have anything against it,” Lifschitz got up and bowed, “you can join me in my box.”

On the contrary,” Bessie thanked him, though she really wanted him to leave her alone. She was angry with Green for talking to the millionaire’s daughter for so long and forgetting all about her. She planned to hint to him that she’d like to go home.

So where should I meet you tomorrow?” Lifschitz asked her.

What?” Bessie was startled, “Where should we meet? Call for me at 7 o’clock. Good, come right at seven, will you come?”

What kind of question is that?” Lifschitz took out a notebook, “Where do you live?”

Give me the book, I’ll write it down.”

In the meantime, Miss Mayer got up, said goodbye to Green and offered her hand to Bessie, “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. ‘Auf wiedersehen’!”

After Miss Mayer and Lifschitz left, Bessie sat looking strained, her eyes downcast. Green didn’t know what it meant and inched closer to her.

What is it, Bessie? Are you angry?”

Of course I’m angry!”

With me?”

With you!”


For… you know…”

That’s forbidden,” he cradled her chin.

You left me sitting so long!”

But weren’t you sitting with Lifschitz?”

He’s a fool!”

Are you really angry?”

Of course I’m angry! She leaned her head on him.

I don’t understand why you had so much to say to Miss Mayer? After all, she’s a total stranger.”

Because she’s a stranger — that’s exactly why there’s something to say,” Green smiled.

If she weren’t a millionaire’s daughter…”

What?” Green interrupted her.


You should be ashamed of yourself, Bessie!” He waved his hand dismissively and turned away from her.

Suddenly he felt hemmed in. He wanted to uproot everything, spare nothing, if only he could stay free. Bessie propped up her head with her hand, puckered her upper lip and bit her lower lip. Her eyes were wet, and tears rolled down her cheeks. Green couldn’t bear to see her cry, felt his anger cooling, and turned to her.

Nu, Bessie, calm down!”

But I love you!”

Don’t say that, my child!”


Because your father won’t have a teacher for a son-in-law!”

He will!”

He won’t!”

So I’ll come visit you, okay?”


My big boy! You know, Lifschitz invited me to go with him to the stadium tomorrow. Caruso is singing. Should I go?”

Go, why not?”

And it won’t bother you?”

Why should it bother me?”

I want it to bother you!”

You’re being silly.”

So why would it bother me if you went with someone else?”

Because you’re being silly!”

My dear boy! You know, I really always believed that a poet is a different kind of person, free of all the ugly things we do, isn’t that so? Listen, what is Lifschitz? A critic?”

He’s a nothing!”

What do you mean?”

I mean,” Green regretted his words and wanted to take them back, “He’s a very capable young man… writes about music… also writes poetry, what more do you want?”

No,” she snuggled up to Green, “I won’t go with him.”

If you don’t go, I’ll be angry with you!” Green said as he draped his arm around her.

No way am I going!” she protested coyly.

He laughed, hugged her, and covered her with kisses. They sat happily in the half-empty hall near an open window, didn’t pay attention as couples occasionally danced by, didn’t notice the night spinning and turning or how the black web of daybreak had started to unravel here and there and transform into light stripes.

The sleepy proprietor, clad in a loose robe, poked his head in every once in a while to see if he could finally close up, and said something to himself.

At dawn they went out into the street. It was still. They walked arm in arm with their heads held high. A middle-aged Italian man collecting barrels of garbage stopped the wagon, looked at them, nodded his head as though it brought back a memory, emptied a garbage barrel into the wagon, urged the horse on, and whistled.

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APOLOGIA by Susan Swartz

The people stood at the foot of the mountain—

We were unbound then // awakened from watery sleep
when the earth cracked open & sound poured out like lava.

We were undecided then // bathed in sulfur and smoke
when thunder split the mountain // when lightening

scorched our heels. Poised on the edge of desire // enveloped
by rumbling flashes, the words entered our consciousness

like a tornado—
            In the bleached-blind wilderness we stood // amid
fire clouds and roaring triumph // amid searing trumpets

& our endless endless wanting // and we were afraid.
Ruthless present tense // Mobius arc of time—

We were joined to each other then // to the blistering
mountain // the vertiginous moment // every noun and verb

exploded through the wilderness. Chosen agnostics,
we declaimed yes to deliverance // yes to unspecified

constraint. To the shattering of silence // to the shattering
of stone. For you not yet able to speak, we said yes.

Reprinted from We Who Desire by Susan Swartz

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Are We There Yet reviewed as “Deeply Inspiring”

The first Amazon review for Are We There Yet by Shefa Gold is in:

5.0 out of 5 stars
Living a Life of Exploration and Wonder
February 4, 2019

Rabbi Shefa Gold’s personal memoir shares how she has cultivated a pathway of living life each day as if she is on a spiritual pilgrimage. Through her stories and life experiences she teaches the reader how to live a life of exploration. In each place you “travel” you gain insights on how to see the awesome beauty of the moment, the gift of your own life, and the opportunity to give and receive blessings! These lessons apply to every opportunity: from eating dinner with your family to trekking through a safari in Africa. This book is short, clear, and deeply inspiring and I’m giving copies to all the fellow spiritual travelers in my life.

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“Recommended to all so inclined to experience the Jewish day of rest.”

“The Sabbath Bee” reviewed by Roger S. Kohn for Association of Jewish Libraries Reviews

These 77 prose poems comprise short vignettes to “welcome the Shabbat bride not like a weekly visitor but as a long-awaited, yearned-for beloved.”

At the Shabbat service, Gottschalk “felt that Shabbat herself was sharing our eagerness for a true reunion,” and she writes how she “began to image Shabbat in various guises, making a unique entrance every week … If Shabbat can be a queen, doesn’t it stand to reason that he can also be a grandparent, a blanket, a jealous girlfriend …hundreds of thousands of facets all taken together might form a reasonable outline of ineffable perfection.”

Recommended to all so inclined to experience the Jewish day of rest.

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Here comes “A Passionate Pacifist”

2019 is the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. It is also the 150th birthday of Aaron Samuel Tamares, an Eastern European Orthodox rabbi who dealt with issues of power and pacifism in his Jewish context.

Ben Yehuda Press is proud to be publishing the first English-language volume devoted to his writings. Featuring a translation of his own autobiographical memoir, “A Passionate Pacifist” presents Tamares’ most important sermons and essays.

This edition is edited and translated by Rabbi Everett Gendler, who first began bringing Tamares to an English-language audience more than 50 years ago.

Available now for pre-order at pre-publication savings.

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Tikkun praises two Jewish Poetry Project volumes

This just in from Tikkun:

“As ‘Infinity Goes on Trial’, All There Is – Is”

by Aubrey L. Glazer
November 27, 2018

Herbert J. Levine, Words for Blessing the World: Poems in Hebrew and English (Ben Yehuda press, 2017).

Yaakov Moshe, and Jay Michaelson. Is: Heretical Jewish Poems and Blessings (Ben Yehuda press, 2017).

When Bob Dylan first sang that: “Inside the museums/Infinity goes up on trial”, his prophetic impulse with “Visions of Johana” (1966) could not have been stronger. The “museums” of American Judaism are the synagogues that resemble a dybbuk that haunts us, sticking here and there, but ultimately feeling more like a plague to be exorcised for most American Jews. Even more to the point, when awarded the Nobel for Literature this past June, Dylan took as seriously as an Americana Jewish trickster could, the question “exactly how [are] my songs related to literature?” For Dylan the project of translation between the worlds of lyrics to literature is ultimately less difficult than one might expect—he doth protest too much!

Dylan’s songbook feels like a solitary soundtrack to this rallying against every institutional expression of religion within the metaphysics of secularism that typifies the American landscape of the wanderer. Yet as John L. Modern argues in his Secularism in Antebellum America (2015): “lonely missives to God [are] constituting a mediasphere.” When spirituality becomes a “mode of haunting and a means of disenchantment” there is a deeper inspiration that fuels the imagination at work here. The current mediasphere that emerges along this lonely landscape is one full of wayfarers and god-fearers. There must be a gossamer thread of metaphysics that is woven through this fabric of secularism in America. Even though secular modernity in America has been highly imprinted by Protestant practices and its particular metaphysical commitments in which “the truly religious and the truly secular were inscribed, seamlessly and simultaneously, with the mark of the real.” That such an experience of reality so tightly interweaves the religious and the secular means that living in America has a religious feeling while living in a secular age. Given that this kind of reality is neither “totalizing nor utterly determinative”, Dylan’s songbook thus picks up on a strange lightness of being, as captured in “Man in the Long Black Coat” (1989) whereby “people don’t live or die, people just float.”

However, recently I have been asking myself an inverted version of this question in reading two remarkable collections of poetry by Herbert J. Levine and Yaakov Moshe—namely, how does this devotional poetry relate to, and even sing, like prayer in a post-secular context? Not necessarily the fairest of questions, given that while all strong poetry may return to its source in song, it does not mean that every poem is intended or even suitable for prayer. So perhaps we may need to limit the question as to whether these poems are simply prayerful. Regardless, it is truly remarkable to see the response of these two poets to Shaul Magid’s call in Tikkun (Winter 2015) for “forms of Jewish worship to embody Schacter-Shalom’s paradigm-changing approach to Jewish theology.” While still abiding on this mortal coil, Reb Zalman admitted that his desire to do paradigm-shift liturgy was never realized during his lifetime, but that that time was-a-comin’! Reb Zalman was one of the pioneering theologians to attempt translating James Lovelock’s Gaia consciousness (1974) into a Jewish cosmotheism. What Lovelock’s Gaian hypothesis envisions is that living matter on the earth collectively defines and regulates the material conditions necessary for the continuance of life. The planet, or rather the biosphere, is thus likened to a vast self-regulating organism.

Such a vast self-regulating organism needs its own poetic response and Levine’s Words for Blessing the World: Poems in Hebrew and English is an unabashed response to that call (53-55), while Michaelson’s Is: Heretical Jewish Poems and Blessings feels more like a concealed response to that impulse (93-95). In what follows, I will briefly analyze each collection of poetry, with an eye to extrapolating the theological implications for next paradigm Judaism(s) and the possibility of offering such prayerful poems.

From the vantage point of “Inside the museums”, Michaelson’s Is: Heretical Jewish Poems and Blessings can be situated squarely as rebelling as part of an intoxicated band of godlovers, primarily those SBNR (“Spiritual-But-Not-Religious”) seekers or those “believers without boundaries” once known as “heretics” (94). From the vantage point of “Infinity goes up on trial”, Levine’s Words for Blessing the World exemplifies a heeding of his master’s call to envision a Gaian community that sees humans as the embodiment of the cosmos becoming self-conscious and thus responsible for the future of that evolution. That both poets present these prayerful poems as offerings at this urgent moment in time evinces a greater zeitgeist unfolding.

For poets to confess their lineage is likely the only heresy that remains today, and even when precursors are cited, too often readers today have little clue as to who these great poets might have been and why they mattered so. As I have argued elsewhere, strong Hebrew poets are prophets for future Jewish thinking and so it is worthwhile considering these two unique poetic offerings. Michaelson (aka Yaakov Moshe) doth protest too much in claiming “I’m not sure if I’m qualified to contradict myself in the style of Walt Whitman, that great queer avatar of spirit and body unchained.” (94) Only Harold Bloom would still argue today that there is only one Walt Whitman (as I learned in arguing with him over whether the Israeli poet, Haya Esther, could be read as a Hebrew Walt Whitman). All humility aside, great poets aspire to great heights, and Michaelson is doing more than wearing his Hebrew nom du plume of Yaakov Moshe as drag, but embodies it in full poetic regalia, channeling precisely a Hebrew lineage (in the sense of the Canaanite poets after Yonatan Ratosh, rather than any Jewish) version of that “great queer avatar of spirit and body unchained” in his poetry collection. Putting it all on the line in one word— “Is” — Michaelson’s poetry is attempting “to gesture at whatever numinous mystery sits inside Robert Frost’s circle, or at the happiness that does not depend on conditions—that quiet sense of spaciousness that emerges in what Virginia Woolf described as bare ‘moments of being.’ (Or Being, if you insist).” (95). Such desire to touch the heart of Being is the poet’s valiant attempt to translate that very elusive event of existence—not at all unique to the American religious poet precursors he deftly cites—but resonates within what the ancient Hebrews called HaVaYa as the basis of the YHVH Tetragram. Michaelson is still willing to schlep the traces of transcendence forward by naming it as “Is”. Whether this contemplative insight comes from countless hours of silent retreat or delving into kabbalah, Michaelson has mined a gem here.

By contrast, Levine retells wisdom from his father about the Potlatch ceremony of mutual gift-giving between tribes: “If we did not carry on, our hearts would break” and glosses it through his own poetic vision: “If I carry on in this way, my mind will break”—“this way” of course referring to such traces of transcendence. Levine instead carries forward the gift that Reb Zalman gave him with the challenge of translating this blessing of Gaian consciousness as barukh ata olam (“O blessed world, you”, 6/7). This is at once creative and strange, but is it still heretical? Some traces of such prayerful heresy abide in forgotten Sabbetean siddurim that point in the other direction, namely, away from any concept of transcendence with an invitation to immersion in the limitless sea of the divine as barukh ata Eyn Sof (“Blessed Are You, Without End”).

The language of address in prayer for spiritual progressives can be perplexing if not plaguing. Recall pioneering American poets like Marcia Falk, in her The Book of Blessings : new Jewish prayers for daily life, the Sabbath, and the new moon festival = Sēfer hab-berâkôt  (1999) and how there she dared to remove all patriarchal trappings of the rabbinic formulation of “the canonical combination of tetragram and sovereignty” (referred to as shem u’malkuth), replacing it all with “Let us all bless the Source of All Life” [Nevareikh makor hayyim]. This seems to have been accepted into Reform siddurim and some Renewal circles without a book ever being burned (a fate that Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist siddur could not transcend at the hands of his Conservadox colleagues!) Falk understood the need for prayerful poetry and thus also included her English translations that make up the bulk of The Book of Blessings poetic additions, primarily Yiddish poetry, along with the first fruits of her larger translation project of Zelda Schneerson Mishkovsky, The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems (2004).Early on, Falk was concerned with this project of renewing liturgy in a non-patriarchal modality, with essays like, “Notes on composing new blessing: toward a Feminist-Jewish reconstruction of prayer.” (1987). Falk was not alone in this regard, especially important in moving forward the theological basis of the discussion were feminist theologians whose pioneering works are still consulted today, like Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism : an inclusive theology and ethics(1998) and Judith Plaskow’s Standing again at Sinai : Judaism from a feminist perspective (1991), both of which are thoroughly embraced by Reform Judaism.

What Levine beckons in his poetry is a radical shift away from the transcendent to the immanent, from the supernatural to natural—a move that Zelda’s poetry desired but could never be limited by as her wild cosmic abandon carried her away. There is a certain analytical sobriety to Levine’s poetry project, while laudable, sometimes feels more like the insights one might glean from great lesson in Hebrew grammar rather than the rapture that comes from being ravished by poetry. Although one would have thought that the final chapter in that lost history of American Hebrew poetry was written by  the late Alan Mintz with his now classic, Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew poetry (2012), now that an American poet like Levine is writing in an exquisite Hebrew must be commended as a remarkable accomplishment. Only Tzemah Yoreh seems to be attempting this experiment with his Humanist blessings and siddurim. Yoreh confesses not to be praying to Gaia, rather: “By praying we validate those communal aspirations and give ourselves strength to continue” which resonates with his project of finding a rigorous and authentic Jewish humanist prayer. Whether it is the community or the world, the reflex in the cases of both Levine and Yoreh is to simply substitute one concept for another. If a transcendent, theistic, patriarchal deity is no longer tenable, or as Levine puts it “an improbable God” (38), then does merely substituting and praying work? Does such prayer have any meaning? If prayer is that yearning to take leave of what German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once called our “I-It” mundane relationships that objectify every person, place and thing around us to reach out to an “I-Thou” in conversation, then where is the conversation happening here in this prayerful poetry? With the larger community? With the world? Perhaps. But, if as Levine astutely reminds us, “in Hebrew, to pray is a reflexive verb” (8), then maybe he is justified in claiming “You need only yourself— the ‘I’ that fears, makes people made, and complains,/and the ‘I’ that includes/all the ‘I’s in the world,/and asks that you have compassion on yourself/and on them all.” (8)

Levine should be commended for attempting the impossible—to write the prayer of Baruch de Spinoza (d. 1677)—the heretical philosopher whose first name was a formulaic theistic blessing he utterly rejected. To carry forward the pristine naturalist philosophy of this Jewish heretic—and to a lesser degree the reconstructionist theology of Mordecai Kaplan and the neo-hasidism of Art Green—is to accept Spinoza’s original supposition that every person is ultimately guided by fear and hope, so that all our behaviors are calculable in relation to what we desire. The existence of being is all we can call out to, nothing more. This humanist calculus means that any act of prayer, worship, offering, sacrifice and other related ritual trappings of popular religion are woefully insufficient, if not utterly embarrassing. Spinoza challenged his Jewish community in Amsterdam as well as humans across the globe to get control of those pesky and fleeting emotions as well as all those superstitions that constituted the theistic Judaism he could no longer accept. Lest we forget, Spinoza did try his best to salvage any useful fragments from the reliquary of Judaism, as he admits in his scandalous, Theological-Political Treatise: “Immense efforts have been made to invest religion, true or false, with such pomp and ceremony that it can sustain any shock and constantly evoke the deepest reverence in all its worshippers”. (Theological-Political Treatise, Preface, G III.6–7/S 2–3). But the lack of rational foundations, coupled with a mistaken “respect for ecclesiastics” involving mysteries but no true worship of the divine totality left Baruch as empty as so many seekers feel today. The jury is out whether today’s seeker searching for prayerful poetry to worship the ultimate mystery will be left empty or full. It may then come down to personal positioning, which is highly subjective as to whether prayer is indeed an art. If it works for you aesthetically, why not pray it?

The abiding concern that keeps me personally from delving deeper into this sea of this prayerful poetry of Levine is when it comes to Yehudah Amichai (d. 2000). Clearly, every strong poem Levine writes in Hebrew is an ode, imitation and resonance of Amichai. If prayer is also about connectivity, then Levine is deeply connected in these poetic offerings to both the late, great Hebrew poet with “To Yehuda Amichai” (40/41) as well as to the American pragmatist prophet of Renewal, Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi with “I Make a Covenant of Peace with You” (44/45). Levine has managed to worship the world as a self-contained immanent divine source and two figures that make his poetic-prophetic vision come alive, and in so doing, he has realized the ultimate humanist albeit heretical prayer. It is no small feat to make a covenant of peace with Reb Zalman nor to say Kaddishaddressed directly to Amichai “May your name be made great and revered” (40/41). Yet we underestimate the power of heresy and the anxiety of its influence even today in this post-secular American Jewish landscape. Lest we succumb to the plague of American Jewish short-term memory, let us not forget that there was no shortage of Sabbatean siddurim that ingeniously filled the negative and generative space of the Tehiru in that delicious moment of divine self-withdrawal necessary to make creation of God and the world possible, with the incarnate presence of AMIR”AH, aka Sabbetai Zvi (d. 1676). Why that was heresy then, but remains immune to heresy as the preferred sect of American hasidism when the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s name is inserted into the Kaddish in some meshikhitin shteibelach, remains a mystery. It is precisely here that Yoreh’s kavvanahpreceding the Shema is instructive: “With the reading of this passage, I wish to show my respect for my foremothers and forefathers, who worshipped God with sacrifice and hardship.  And though I can offer no song or prayer to an anthropomorphic god (or to any god), as it says: “Be careful lest you make yourselves an idol or any image of a male or female”, their traditions are engraved upon the tablet of my heart.” Idolatry is always a near and present danger when the divine totality is elided from the triad that Franz Rosenzweig so beautifully explicated as the foundational triads of his reading of the Star of David as the Star of Redemption, being God-World-Human intersecting with Creation-Revelation-Redemption. Remove one of the vertices and the dynamic interrelationship ceases, and the creative tension of the dialectics collapses into imbalanced essences.

Like Yoreh, Levine’s flourish is found in his mastery of Hebrew. So, while Levine amazed me with poetry that speaks of “sleep apnea” in Hebrew as dom haneshimah b’shayna (23), I was disappointed to read “fantasies” translated as a limpid loan word (39). The strength of Levine’s prayerful poetry comes in a flash, in writing those “unwritten white spaces” of forgotten scriptures especially when he embodies the other, like Ishmael (28/29) and Esau (28/29) as well as countless feminine voices, otherwise absent from Scripture in his own poetic midrash of sorts. But Levine’s real genius shines through when he says the unsaid that bedeviled Amichai all his life: “The Palestinians commemorate their tragic Naqba, /a holy day of remembering and mourning the loss/of their nation. When the day comes that they celebrate the beginning of their state, I suggest they also celebrate/a Palestinian Purim, with costumed, masks and hashish/ (the Muslims won’t be drinking alcohol)”. (22/23) Only the pathos of the poet could make such a spiritual suggestion so that in the end his heresy shines like a diamond: “when they’ll wipe out the name of Israel/once a year, and they’ll say what Jews say/on Hanukah, Passover and Purim: They tried to kill us/but they failed, so let’s eat rich food/and tell funny stories/to keep living well and not fall/to the bottom of memory’s black hole/of tears and shame and fury.” (24/25). This poetic insight of Levine is the greatest surprise blessing of the book!

Michaelson’s poetic flourish comes in his willingness to still dawn to god-language of hasidic masters in crying out Ribbono Shel Olam (“Master of the Universe”) while cutting loose the ties that bind, namely, any remaining boundaries that would claim to contain their ecstatic yearnings inside the walls of the shteibl, or any house of prayer with walls. While never as explicit as Levine, Michaelson does nod to Reb Zalman when he poetically captures the master’s renowned oral adage: “I don’t care about the God you don’t believe in/I want to know what prompts wonder in you” (38). But the poet reaches new heights as he extends this adage with a recurring sip of Rumi’s quatrains: “I have more in common with the atheist who dances/Than with the so-called pious, /asleep.” Michaelson is playful in his panentheistic flourishes, echoing Levine, when he writes: “So if you are sometimes in love with the world”, but never succumbing to Levine’s full-fledged devotion to the world as Gaia. Rather Michaelson settles for being present to the pragmatism of: “now in wiser moments/i pray only that I will remain/aware/of this” (39). The deeper grooves of an ecstatic contemplative come through in marvelous moments like these and allow the Jewish seeker to finally begin to let go of Coleman Barks’ Americanized interpretive adaptations of Turkish Sufi poet, Rumi and embrace that great Jewish queer avatar of spirit and body unchained.

Ultimately, we still have time to respond to Magid’s call, but it is up to each of us to leaf through some of the most aspiring and inspiring American Jewish poets, like Levine and Michaelson, who are not only writing a prayerful poetry that may be our future liturgies, but now is the time to pray their poetry. If not now, then when and moreover, how will each of us as seekers find a way to be more than singing peddlers like in “Visions of Johanna” and ever be able to respond with anything more than “skeleton keys” to ensure the song still can sing itself? Dylan directed his prayerful poem to that “caring countess”, just as these prayerful poets direct their prayers to the biosphere as a vast self-regulating organism as the “empty cage now corrodes” and to the divine totality as the love supreme as “as my conscience explodes.” Even if we are still left wondering whether we can really achieve a lasting meaning through these prayerful poems, these poets leave us with the hope that their poetry will intercede on behalf of our skepticism to: “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”?


Aubrey L. Glazer,PhD, (University of Toronto, 2005) currently serves as senior rabbi of Montreal’s Congregation Shaare Zion, and has served as senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom, San Francisco (2014-2018) as well as Jewish Community Center of Harrison, New York (2005-2014). As a graduate of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, Aubrey has co-lead Jewish meditation retreats at Makor Or with Zoketsu Norman Fischer as well as teaching Zohar in the Philosophy Circle of Lehrhaus under the direction of Daniel Matt. Aubrey’s recent publications in contemporary philosophy and spirituality include: Mystical Vertigo (Academic Studies Press, 2013); Tangle of Matter & Ghost: Leonard Cohen’s Post-Secular Songbook of Mysticism(s) Jewish & Beyond(Academic Studies Press, 2017) and God Knows Everything is Broken: Bob Dylan’s Great (Gnostic) Americana Mystical Songbook (forthcoming). Aubrey is director of Panui: an open, contemplative space for researching and development in modern and contemporary Jewish mysticism in a dynamic and authentic way to build conscious, compassionate community.

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A Song for Gratitude

by Herbert Levine

What does it take to treasure each day, 
to give thanks for the gifts not earned, 
to savor the taste of every first fruit 
and know that enough is as good as a feast? 

It takes a lifetime to learn how to live, 
to sort through the stuff that fills up our days, 
to weigh and measure just what to claim 
and know that enough is as good as a feast.  

So sit at nightfall with those you love 
and light a candle to greet the dark, 
clasp hands as you bless the bread 
and know that enough is as good as a feast.  

Open your heart to the joy and the pain, 
the bitter and sweet of the knowledge you’ve gained  
and sweetly surrender to what you can’t change  
and know that enough is as good as a feast…

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Librarians love Zombies Jews vs Zombies gets a review in the Association of Jewish Libraries Reviews

On page 28 of the November/December 2017 issue of Reviews, from our friends at the Association of Jewish Libraries, we find:

Taking advantage of the current popularity of zombies, Tidhar and Levene bring together in a single
volume a collection of incredible writers presenting an unusually wide range of entertaining short stories with different styles, tones, and topics which explore interesting situations that intersect Jews and zombies….

Recommended for teenage readers and anyone who likes short stories about zombies. This book
continues the ground-breaking work of books about Jews and Science Fiction, such as Wondering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy & Science Fiction (1998, edited by Jack Dann) and Stars of David: Jewish Science Fiction (1996, edited by D.J. Kessler).

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Studies in Jewish Pluralism “touching and thought-provoking” Jewish Book Council reviews Academy of Jewish Religion volume

Judaism and Pluralism

From the Jewish Book Council:

Studies in Judaism and Pluralism, edited by Leonard Levin, is an anthology of essays compiled in celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Academy of Jewish Religion (AJR), a training institution for pluralistic clergy and Jewish leadership. The anthology includes twenty essays written by clergy, educators, and thought leaders from across the Jewish community. The essays are divided into seven units and focus on pluralism in an educational, denominational, halachic (legal), and communal context.

In the introduction, Levin, who teaches Jewish Philosophy at AJR, begins with a definition of pluralism. He suggests that “pluralism differs from relativism by striving for a golden mean between a dogmatic claim to objectivity and descent into pure subjectivity…. Pluralism is the ongoing give-and-take that seeks to achieve this dynamic partial consensus, while recognizing and respecting the differences that persist between us.” The essays that follow may offer a nuanced distinction from Levin’s definition, but all share a deep appreciation of pluralism as an essential value of Jewish life. Many authors also share their personal or professional struggles or their communal challenges in creating a pluralistic Jewish space.

Joel Alter, in his essay “Documenting Core Values: A Pluralism Audit in a Jewish Day School,” shares his experience implementing a pluralism audit, a core value of the Jewish Community Day School of Watertown, Massachusetts. He suggests that “the compromises required to establish and sustain a pluralistic community in a school highlight the inherent tensions between community and individual autonomy, value-based positions and ‘mere’ preferences, competing cultural priorities, and sources of authority.” The process led Alter to a deeper understanding of the challenges inherent to educating around a core school value and living the mission of a school.

With a very different feel, Shira Pasternack Be’eri’s essay, “Texting Across the Arab-Jewish Divide,” explores her own prejudices as a Jewish Israeli hailing a taxi in Jerusalem. Following a period of heightened tension around the High Holy Days, the author ultimately refuses a ride with an Arab Israeli driver. Feeling unsettled by her self-described “race-based fear,” Be’eri reached out to the driver a few weeks later to apologize. The driver accepted the apology and offered a personal prayer for peace. The exchange renewed the author’s hope in finding voices of “humanity and compassion to be heard above the clatter of hatred and conflict.”

The essays in Studies in Judaism and Pluralism are both touching and thought-provoking. While a handful will require a background in Jewish practice or thought to appreciate, the majority of the essays are accessible and will offer the casual reader a deeper appreciation for the challenges and opportunities that embracing pluralism hold for the future of Jewish life.