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Parasha post for Simchat Torah: V’Zot HaBrachah

Prepare for the holiday with us!

Moses dies, but where is he buried? We offer a startling possibility… There are also poems, because what would Simchat Torah be like without poems?

Crowns of Torah scrolls, by shlomi kakon, CC BY

As usual, we offer three different selections from our books that follow the parasha cycle. The first one is an excerpt from Torah Journeys by Rabbi Shefa Gold – this book offers a blessing & a challenge for each portion, and a practice to go with them.

These discussions are several large-size pages long, so we’re only highlighting some choice portions from this week’s chapter (p. 221-226).

Moses dies in this Torah portion. Yet it is an unusual death in multiple ways. Unlike other religious leaders, we don’t have access to his gravesite so that we could go there to pray. Why is that important? Rabbi Gold explains…

The death of Moses represents the ultimate and most profound spiritual challenge that God gives to each of us. The vast body of literature, poetry, and midrash that describe the death-scene and burial of Moses stand in contrast to the actuality of the stark and spare text in Deuteronomy that says he died (by the mouth of God) was buried, and that no one knows where his grave is.

The fact that Moses’ gravesite is unknown, poses a major challenge in the development of Judaism. Religions tend to develop as the glorification of some great man. “He was so great and we are nothing. Let us worship him, or pray at his grave, or receive the merit of his goodness.

We’d note in parentheses that Jews tend to do this too, if not worshipping leaders, but definitely receiving the merit of their goodness. The pilgrimage to Uman, the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is a famous example.

However, Rabbi Gold notes:

But here the message becomes, “Don’t look to Moses… it is not really about him… the Torah is about you.”

A bit later, Rabbi Gold talks about one of her own spiritual experiences that relate to this portion …and that turned out unexpectedly:

Once during a meditative journey I asked, “Show me where Moses is buried”. I was told, “It’s not out there. Moses is buried within you.” […] The moment I found stillness, a flower opened up inside my heart.

How can we incorporate Moses’ death, or our own, into our spiritual practice? As Rabbi Gold points out, this was discussed even in the Talmud…

Rabbi Eliezer, one of our great sages, taught his disciples, “Turn (repent) one day prior to your death.” And his students said to him, “Master, how can anyone know what day is one day prior to their death?” His response to them was, “Therefore, turn today, because tomorrow you may die.”

BT Shabbat 153a

How can we incorporate this awareness into our lives? Here is a contemplative exercise

[I]magine that you are lying on your death-bed, surrounded by everyone you have ever known. Your heart is filled with memories of the life you have led. What do you regret? What are you proud of? What seeds have you planted? What are your priorities “one day prior to your death?” Now, turn towards the faces that witness you – family, friends, bosses, employees, co-workers, enemies, neighbors, strangers. Perhaps the meaning and fullness of your life can only be expressed through the blessing that you impart to them.

Rabbi Gold notes that this portion is not just about Moses’ death, but also about the blessings he provides to the tribes! What blessings could we offer to the people we know? And could we accept blessings from other people dear to us?

And because we are SOMEwhat contrarian here at Ben Yehuda Press, we’d also like to ask you to consider receiving a blessing from your enemies.

What would that be like? Can you think of a time when that happened?

There is a famous example of just that in the Bible, discussed by one of our authors, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, on her blog. Very timely, also because next up we’re going to share one of her Simchat Torah poems…

Mobius by Rachel Barenblat

For Simchat Torah

I want to write the Torah
on a mobius strip of parchment

so that the very last lines
(never again will there arise,

arpeggio of signs and wonders
stout strength and subtle teaching)

would lead seamlessly to
the beginning of heavens

and earth, the waters
all wild and waste, and God

hovering over the face of creation
like a mother bird.

This is the strong sinew
that stitches our years together:

that we never have to bear
the heartbreak of the story ending

each year the words are the same
but something in us is different

on a mobius strip of parchment
I want to write the Torah

I love how the first and last stanzas tie together – if you wanted, you could write out the poem on a Mobius strip.

You can get Rabbi Barenblat’s collection Open My Lips from us –

We also have another book from her, Texts to the Holy

And now, another poem, this one from we who desire: poems and Torah riffs by Sue Swartz – this book also follows the weekly cycle, so now is a good time to pick it up and start anew!

(infinite in all directions)
by Sue Swartz


This is the book of face to face.
In it, curved throat of god brought close.

In it, nothing remains itself very long.

Our fingerprints are all over its pages,
our minds’ lathe spinning and spinning –

Dear reader, dear dizzied reader:
Enjoy the circumnavigation.

I will not lie. There are easier ways
to make a life. But this is your only one –

Do not disappear yourself from it.

*

& it was evening and it was morning,
a hundred hundred perfections arrayed
in all their fertile expanse –

all the lands we permit ourselves not to see,
pointed twig and the intention of –

so the instructions are in a foreign tongue
so the skies melt in our hands

let us praise the wild and waste,
the floating out there, tumbling down there
beyond

you said let there be and there was
we said let there be and there was

*

Like a pencil poised for calculation –

A key not yet turned in the twitchy ignition –

We end on this point, full of possibility and renewal. Thank you for following along, and let us welcome you for another cycle!

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For your Sukkot poetry needs…

Sukkot seems less popular among poets than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. But Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s Open My Lips: Poems and Prayers has quite comprehensive holiday coverage, also including work about Hoshanna Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

Here is a poem about Hoshanna Rabbah, and we’re also saving something for our parsha series…

Hoshanna Rabbah Prayer

by Rachel Barenblat

My footsteps across
this patch of earth’s scalp
release the scent of thyme.

Even in the rain
the squirrels have been busy
denuding the corncobs.

The wind has dangled
my autumn garlands. I untangle
them one last time.

Every day the sukkah becomes
more of a sketch of itself.
The canvas walls dip

and drape, the cornstalks
wither, revealing more
of the variegated sky.

Today we ask: God, please save
this ark and all that it holds.
Today the penultimate taste

of honey on our bread.
Today we beat willow branches
until the leaves fall.

The end of this long walk
through fasts and feasts:
we’re footsore, hearts weary

from pumping emotion. We yearn
to burrow into the soil
and close our eyes. We won’t know

what’s been planted in us
until the sting of horseradish
pulls us forth into freedom.

If you enjoyed the poem, you can get the whole book!

You can also buy it from:

(Associate links)

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Parsha post! Shabbat chol hamoed Sukkot

A special Shabbat is coming up! Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot. We have some readings for you from our books – and if you feel like everything is such a mess at this point in the holidays, we have something for you too.

On this Shabbat, the Torah reading is something we also read at other times during the year – and the last Torah portion of the cycle will actually be read on Simchat Torah, a weekday. (Along with the new beginning of the cycle!) So now, all of a sudden we find ourselves back in Exodus, with Moses, and G-d giving rules about kashrut and all that.

To match the feeling of ‘can all those rules be enough for now?’ I picked a poem by Zackary Sholem Berger from his collection ALL THE HOLES LINE UP: Poems and Translations.

Ten Commandments are Not Enough by Zackary Sholem Berger

Six hundred thir
teen don’t even
saturate
the terrifying space
of choice.
We can always do
something else?
Help me, compromiser
keep my
inadequate choices
at bay
not whimpering on chains
not weeping in twilight
but crouching
for a morsel

(You can also follow him on Twitter at @DrZackaryBerger where he also talks about medicine and healthcare!)

Next up, I chose something from THE JEWISH BOOK OF DAYS by Jill Hammer! Rabbi Hammer talks about every day in the Jewish calendar, and this unusual Shabbat is no exception. While Sukkot is supposedly a partying holiday, on this Shabbat we read Ecclesiastes!

She explains:

On the Sabbath that falls during Sukkot, it is customary to read the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a mournful work about the futility of possessions, wisdom, and ambition in the face of death. Yet Ecclesiastes is also about the acceptance of time and the poignant beauty of the ephemeral. Enjoy life, the author of the book says, and do good deeds and know that your stay on earth will not last forever. This seems the right message for Sukkot. The harvest is itself the beginning of a journey into winter and an uncertain future.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is called Kohelet, “the gatherer.” A king in Jerusalem, he has reaped a harvest of wisdom, wealth, and love; and yet he cannot hold onto these gifts forever. He struggles with this reality and finally accepts it. On Sukkot, we too know that the harvest will soon be eaten. Our hearts are full only for a moment. Then we must be willing to move on. This is the wisdom of the heart: We are like the sea, always filling, yet never entirely full. On this day of Sukkot, we invite into our sukkah Moses and Miriam, redeemers who crossed the sea toward an unknown future.

(Look, here is Moses again!)

Rabbi Hammer also quotes an especially poignant bit from Ecclesiastes to match:

One generation goes,
another comes,
But the earth remains
the same forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets –
And glides back to where it rises.
Southward blowing,
Turning northward,
Ever turning blows the wind,
On its rounds the wind returns.
All streams flow into the sea,
Yet the sea is never full.
To the place [from] which they flow,
The streams flow back again.

Ecclesiastes 1:4-7

And she also quotes this midrashic bit about how Ecclesiastes Rabbah explains it:

All the streams flow into the sea – the wisdom of a person comes from the heart. But the sea is never full – but the heart can never be filled.

Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:4

Thus we have on this Shabbat a clash between thoughtfulness and PARTYING.
(We had something about the partying bit earlier!)

Before we move on, you can also get The Jewish Book of Days from us (we also have more of Jill Hammer’s work!) Super great time to buy now, at the beginning of the year! It’ll be a companion year-round.

Now. I’d say we also have a clash between all the holiday observances (including both the partying and the mournfulness), and being quite exhausted…! As I was looking through various books of ours, I opened THE SABBATH BEE at a page that described exactly how I felt.

This is a book of prose poems and tiny stories about Shabbat, by Wilhelmina Gottschalk – we wrote about it earlier, it’s really cute and heartwarming. This book has chapters for all the special Shabbat times too, including this Shabbat that falls on Sukkot. The chapter I chose, however, is not that chapter. (For that, you need to get the book..)

Did I say something about messiness? This’ll say something about messiness!

Macaroni necklace by Wilhelmina Gottschalk

It was a macaroni necklace day. A seat of your pants, I saw this thirty seconds ago in a shop window and it sorta reminded me of you, I can’t find my glasses – you mean the ones you’re wearing right now? – sort of a day.

I should probably be embarrassed. I made tea sandwiches for the queen of the week and left the crusts on. I nodded off in the corner and slept through the entire grand fanfare, trumpets and all.

But Shabbat didn’t say anything. In fact, I may have just dreamed it, but I’d swear she pulled her foot out of her diamond-studded heel at one point to show me the run in her stocking, one toe poking out, before she tucked her foot back in her shoe and let a boisterous gang of children lead her onto the dance floor.


You can also get this book from us:

Thank you for reading, and have a great Sukkot + Shabbat shalom!

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Sukkot for kids! From An Angel Called Truth

This is our all-ages special for Sukkot, an excerpt from An Angel Called Truth & Other Tales From the Torah by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons, illustrated by Pete Williamson. Enjoy, and chag sameach!


~ Lit ~


Succot is the most joyous festival in the Hebrew Bible. While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it was the occasion for a huge party, discussed in the ancient rabbinic text, the Mishnah. We’ve told our tale from the perspective of a young boy who was central to the celebrations.

I love Succot. Everyone dresses up and comes to Jerusalem, and there are mass processions with everyone holding their lulavimא‬ and etrogimב‬ . The trumpets are blown and at night there are these massive parties. The whole of Jerusalem is lit all through the night and we party and sing and I … I have the best job in the world.

Before Succot, we build these fire towers, all around the central courtyard of the Temple. Each tower has four golden cauldrons in the sky, full of fire. On the night after the first day of the Festival, four young priests are chosen for the honour of lighting these massive flames. This year, I’m one of them! I’m a fire-lighter. Did I mention, I love fire?

א‬. Tall palm leaves, bound together with three myrtle and two willow stems.
‫ב‬. Citrus fruits, not lemons, but similar.

As the stars come out, everyone heads to the Temple courtyard. The chant of thousands of people echoes around the city, ‘vesamachtah b’chagechah’ – ‘Be happy on your festival.’ This really is our time. The harvest is complete, all the food for the winter has been brought into the house and now it’s time to say thank you to God and to celebrate.

Over the heads of the people, ladders are passed down to centre of the crowd and balanced against the fire towers. As everyone chants, I get to be the one to climb up, with a fire-torch in one hand while holding on tightly with the other. It’s a long way down. I’m going to start the flames and the fire will burn so brightly, there won’t be a courtyard in the city that isn’t lit.

There’s a time to be serious and there’s a time to party. This is our time to party.

QUESTIONS:

Being religious is usually associated with being serious. Why? Why might partying also be a religious thing to do?

What might the problems of too much, or not enough partying, be? What might be the ‘wrong’ or the ‘right’ way to party?

The festival of Succot is held at the end of autumn, just before winter (in the Northern Hemisphere). Why might this time of year be a particularly good time to celebrate?

Sources:

Mishnah Succot 5 talks about the celebration side of Succot, called Simchat Beit HaShoevah – or the ‘Happiness of the Water-Pouring House’. The rabbis say, ‘Anyone who has not seen this happiness, has never seen happiness in all their life.’ It describes fire cauldrons on giant pillars and flames bright enough to light up the entire city (back in the days before electricity!). Two other fun details: the wicks for the flames of these oil-burning fires were made from the worn-out trousers of the priests (you don’t just throw stuff away, and especially not if it’s been used for sacred purposes), and the Talmud also records great feats of juggling and contortion – Abaye, Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel, Levi, Shmuel are all recorded in various places in the Talmud as juggling eight cups, and even eight flaming torches.

If you enjoyed the excerpt and shared it with your whole family, you can also get the book:

Enjoy the holiday and make sure to party!

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Parsha time! Ha’azinu

This week’s thread about the weekly portion will tell you how to fasten yourself to G-d. (Duct tape optional)

🌄 HA’AZINU 🌄

In which Moses sings a lengthy song and is then told about his impending death. (We warned you.) There’s also a big rock!

Bouldering, closeup of a hand in a crack. Picture by Arthur Hsu

Even though we’re just before Sukkot, a happy occasion, this parsha has a lot of rather grim commentary – because this is where G-d tells Moses that he’s going to die, and not be allowed into the Land.

A discussion of death follows, not all of it as peaceful as Moses’. As usual, we will pick 3 tidbits on the portion from books that we published. And we’ll begin with the one NOT about death. It involves fastening 🩹

The first piece is from Abe Mezrich’s collection of poetic midrash on the later books of the Torah, BETWEEN THE MOUNTAIN AND THE LAND LIES THE LESSON.

Hold the World Together

1.
The people of Babel fear they will scatter across the world.
They build a great tower from the valley where they live, up to Heaven.
This, they think, will hold them in place;
will hold them together.

But God disbands them.

Far later God relays a speech for Moses to share.
In it, God calls Heaven and Earth to witness His words–
*like storms upon the vegetation*.
To remain a people on the Land, God says, follow God.

2.
In Babel they thought earth and sky and each of us
are separate things.
It would take a structure to connect them
for us to stay together.
But God tells Moses: Heaven and Earth and the people
and our lives with God
— they are already part of one fabric:

a single fabric beneath the One God
Who rains from the sky to the grass.

3.
If you want to hold the world together,
do not invent a new structure to hold it up.
There is no need. It will not work.

Look to the fabric of God.
Fasten yourself to it.

The endnote specifies that this piece was based on Genesis 11 and Deuteronomy 31:16-32:2,44-47, the latter from our weekly portion.

For our next detail, we picked something from Torah & Company, a book by Judith Z. Abrams that finds a matching detail from the Mishnah and the Gemara for each weekly portion! (Demonstrate your erudition over Shabbat dinner!)

In his song, Moses offers a beautiful image of God as a rock:

“The Rock! His deeds are perfect; and all His ways are just.
A faithful God without sin: righteous and straightforward is He.” (32:4)

There is a longer story in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Avodah Zarah 17b, that features this quote.

(A warning that this will be grim.)

The Romans then brought up Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon and they said to him:

“Why have you occupied yourself with Torah which the emperor had forbidden under penalty of death?”

The rabbi said to them: “Thus the Lord my God commanded me.” At once they sentenced him to be burnt..

As he went out from the tribunal he accepted the righteousness of the Divine judgment. He quoted, “The Rock, His work is perfect; for all his ways are justice.”

They took hold of him, wrapped him in the Scroll of the Law, placed bundles of branches round him and set them on fire. Then they brought tufts of wool, which they had soaked in water, and placed them over his heart, so that he should die slowly.

( 😱 )

His daughter said to him: “Father, alas that I should see you in this state!”

He said to her: “If it were I alone that was being burnt it would have been a thing hard for me to bear. But now that I am burning together with the Scroll of the Law, He who will have regard for the Plight of the Torah will also have regard for my plight.”

His students said to him: “Rabbi, what do you see?”

He said to them: “The parchments are being burnt but the letters are flying free…”

The executioner said to him: “Rabbi, if I raise the flame and take away the tufts of wool from over your heart (so your death is quicker and less painful), will you assure me that I will enter into the life to come?”

The rabbi said to him: Yes.”

The executioner said to him: “Then swear unto me.”

He swore to him that he would enter the world to come. The executioner immediately raised the flame and removed the tufts of wool from over his heart, and his soul quickly departed.

The executioner then jumped and threw himself into the fire. And a heavenly voice went forth saying: “Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon and the executioner are destined for life in the world to come.”

When Rabbi heard it he wept and said: “There are those who acquire eternity in one hour, and then there are those who acquire eternity over many years!”

*

Whew! That’s a difficult story in more senses than one. For instance, why was Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon so certain he could make such an offer?

Judith Z. Abrams also has some discussion questions for us –

“Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon accepts his fate serenely. What does that image mean to you? How could you experience “the letters flying free” in your life? “Is there a qualitative difference between the eternal life acquired in an hour, or that acquired over the course of a lifetime? Which is easier? Is it fair to employ a “shortcut” in this matter?”

And the last one is also about death and mourning, but in a less abrupt manner

It is a poem from Maxine Silverman’s SHIVA MOON: Poems from a Year of Mourning, published by our Jewish Poetry Project imprint.

In this piece she talks about her father’s passing, and relates it to the passing of time in the Jewish calendar and the history of the Jewish people in the Torah…up till and including the passing of Moses and Aharon.

(We already talked about Aharon’s death here!)

What I Learned So Far

When Ellen says my poems these days seem one seamless Kaddish,
I hear she understands the six months
before my father died were raw keen k’riah.

How June’s visit home I see his death
forming in the air he breathes.

Why every evening I call him
until there’s nothing left to say,
until all that remains–the sheer
pleasure of his company.

Elul. He weakens before my eyes,
no shofar blast required.

Tishrei. We daven
repetitions to dwell in meaning: who shall live
and who shall die, who in the fullness of years

We cross into wilderness, a new year,
pillar of fire before us, the old, the weak, the infirm
to the rear, Amalek plucking them one death
at a time.

Reservations for December.
My father says, “Come right now.” and I do.

A way is made.
Gathered to his people,
a story old as time.

Thank you for following along, and we hope we managed to offer some things to think about. Before Sukkot and partying (we will have something about Sukkot and partying, too!)…

Also make sure not to miss our INTENSE discourse on the size of Nineveh in the Bible, earlier today.

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Introducing The Sabbath Bee by Wilhelmina Gottschalk!

You voted on which of our books I should introduce next, and the winner was:

🐝 THE SABBATH BEE 🐝 by Wilhelmina Gottschalk!

Heartwarming, thought-provoking, sometimes gender-bending prose poems about Shabbat 🥰 Because we all need some warmth for this new year!

These poems feature some sort of personification of Shabbat. The classic one, of course, is Shabbat the queen, Shabbat the bride… but this book very deliberately goes beyond that. As Gottschalk says in the foreword:

“There are times when Shabbat might be more like a visiting uncle than a queen. And for that matter, as a citizen of a representative democracy, how should I feel about royalty?”

Shabbat can be anything really.

“if Shabbat can be a queen, doesn’t it stand to reason that he can also be a grandparent? Or a blanket? Or to take an idea from the Kabbalist Shlomo Halevi, the ruins of a mighty city?”

(SHABBAT IS TOTALLY A BLANKET. I am CONVINCED)

Every week, Shabbat is different, so there are poems in the book for each week of the year, and then some more. As the author explains, sometimes you feel like “Oh, it’s Friday again!” 😍 And sometimes you feel like “Oh. It’s Friday. Again?” 😩

Some of the poems are very short, some are longer. Some are for special Shabbatot, like the ones falling on holidays, or Shabbat Shuvah, which is coming right up!!! (It’s between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.)

Let’s start with a tiny one.

Just cuddle

Battered by the week, I lean into Shabbat. “Can we just cuddle tonight?”

We actually posted the Rosh Hashanah one recently on our parent publisher’s Twitter account, so you can head over there to read it – it’s a bit longer and titled “Beads”. (Very sensorily satisfying if you like that kind of thing!)

Some of the segments are very serious. Some are fun! Some are little stories that miiiiiiiiight sound familiar.

Let me share “The Muse-Shabbat Smackdown”!

Friday at 6:45, my muse knocks on the door.

Shabbat answers. “Oh, it’s you. What do *you* want?” she asks.

“Who is it?” I call.

My muse starts to answer, but Shabbat cuts her off. “No one! Just a salesperson!” She glares at my muse. “You can’t come in now. It’s *my* time.”

My muse raises her hands in confusion, diaphanous robes fluttering. “But, I just have this one really great idea-“

“Tough. Come back in twenty-five hours.”

“Can I just leave a message? A short little-“

Shabbat glares. “I don’t take dictation,” she says, slamming the door in my muse’s face.

I watch from the end of the hallway, slipping back into the kitchen before Shabbat turns around. When she glides back into the room and cups her body against my back, I pretend nothing happened.

Shabbat is a taste of paradise, but she can be jealous.

😫😝

I think that’s painfully relatable! Now let’s pick another one where Shabbat is more like… things. Or rather, processes? (to paraphrase William James, Shabbat is a process, not a thing 😆 ) I really enjoy these reconceptualizations –

Becomes easy

The first moment of Shabbat is when everything becomes easy.

Shabbat is the waterslide after waiting in line under the summer sun. Shabbat is the tiny change in calculation that makes X finally mark the spot. It is the moment when the 3-D picture resolves itself, when the pie dough reaches the right consistency. Shabbat is slippers after stilettos, a real hug after a week of quick pats on the back. When the curtains open and the first streams of Shabbat shine in, the middling details and distant humming vanish.

It all happens in the flare of a match, the last sliver of sunlight. You just have to know the magic words.

😌

But you know, Shabbat is actually drag. The next piece might convince you 😁 (All-ages! While we have certainly published some VERY adult content elsewhere, this is not it.)

The cover of night

Night falls, the darkness spreading over the sky as a shelter of peace. On Shabbat someone asks, “To what can the black sky be likened?”

One says – to the roof of a tent.

(But no, a tent protects from storms and poor weather, while the night sky often brings with it rain or hail.)

Says another – to a covering blanket. (But although Shabbat is a day of rest, surely most celebrants will be awake very late, enjoying its festive cheer.)

Is not the darkness of Shabbat like a wedding canopy? asks a third.

(Perhaps, but only two stand beneath a wedding canopy, while the whole world is shadowed by the dark.)

And finally a child speaks, saying, “The sky of Shabbat is like dress-up clothes, that let anyone underneath become a king or queen for just a little while.”

(SEE, I TOLD YOU)

And for the last piece today, I picked something a little mysterious… that resolves into something very familiar…

Reluctant Shabbat

Shabbat was hiding.

Somewhere in the house, I hoped. The windows were all closed, and anyway I hated the idea of him lost in the hard, unfriendly outside. I looked everywhere, pretending that I was just cleaning as I checked under the couch, behind the curtains, in drawers.

No luck. Next I tried to lure him with the smell of pie just out of the oven, fresh bread from the bakery. Nothing.

I lit candles hoping to attract him like a moth. I sang his favorite songs.

Finally, I gave up. I collapsed on the sofa and watched the candles burn until the room went dark.

…And sometime in the middle of the night I woke up with a crick in my neck and the warm, fuzzy feeling of Shabbat curled up warm against my stomach. I shifted to a more comfortable position and fell back asleep.

Thank you for reading – I hope these poems brought a bit of Shabbat cheer and warmth into your weekday!

👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝 👑 🐝

You can buy the book directly from us:

Or you can order from Bookshop.org (associate link) to support local bookstores.

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Strange Fire excerpt!

Strange Fire edited by T.S. Mendola is our unorthodox anthology reflecting on our COVID-conscious present! Preorders are open and the book is coming soon.

Strange Fire has four sections: Anger, Death, Sex and Faith. For today, we chose to share a few paragraphs from an essay in the Sex section,  “The Whores’ Covenant” by RG! Please note that the below content is meant for adults 18+.

Strange Fire cover

*

We shoot for two hours. I am efficient and professional; we never need longer. Afterward I peel off the now-damp velveteen choker and plush false lashes. I put on my street clothes, my Star of David, and a mask in muted florals a friend made for me. I pay my photographer, tip as generously as I am able, reassure him that I don’t need the shots immediately, family comes first, it’s fine, text me, let me know how your brother’s doing, and slip into the alley behind his studio. I mop the makeup from my temple, damp from the softbox lights, and check the bus schedule for the next transfer home. This shoot will sell well, I think, my ass looks perkier since I’ve lost some weight and stockings are always popular with my regular clients. I sit at the bus stop, redolent of piss and dirty, ashen summer heat, and mentally extrapolate the budget for the projected earnings; what goes to charity, what goes to debts, what goes to little extras like skincare, a new duvet set, more lingerie, a gift for a relative’s birthday. I finger my necklace, lackluster from years of anxious rubbing, like a worry stone, and say minhah before the bus comes. It is nearly dusk. I am late in my daily prayers, but it cannot be helped. I trudge onto the bus with my overstuffed duffle, earbuds in, podcast on. My thumbs dictate a quick promotion for the evening crowds as I heave myself into a seat, “FLASHSALE: five erotic, high-res photos for $15, tonight til midnight, DM for details.” I add a kiss emoji and a coy but suggestive glamour shot. I spellcheck, debate which promotional shot to use, add my time zone, and post. I turn on my notifications and try to relax into the rigid, inhospitable plastic of the bus seat.

I have done this work for a decade now, in various iterations. An amateur burlesque performer, awkwardly and excitedly accepting meager, grubby tips from audiences; a trained dominatrix, wiping my crops with alcohol; and now, a professional sexter and peddler of nudes. A college-educated smut purveyor. Unwed. Devorah in a g-string. I pray thrice daily, often more; I do not eat pork or shellfish; I volunteer at the local foodbank; I attend Shabbat service regularly. I fast, I bake pies and casseroles for families sitting shiva. I take God’s law seriously, then I take my clothes off and pose with lace, clamps, and crops.

The untold story of this labor, throughout the centuries, in brothels and nightclubs, on Backpage and OnlyFans, is the labor of the soul that comes with confessing desire to a stranger, of witnessing their confession, of admitting to and meeting those needs that we’ve been told all our lives are at best problematic or at worst outright sinful. My clients, past and present, aren’t looking for mere titillation: they can get that anywhere. What they seek is the intimacy of witnessing someone’s desire, in full bloom, unabashed. To be invited, for a fee, into the world of that desire. Being isolated in your own yearning amplifies the associated sensations of perversion and lonesomeness. My goods and services provide a private viewing of another’s desire, of their mating display, and a kind, unselfconscious voice to reassure them that they are not alone in their needs.

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If you’re interested in more, make sure to get yourself a copy! We’ve also posted an amount of short snippets at our Twitter account, and we plan on posting other longer excerpts as well.

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Into My Garden by David Caplan

On Chof Av, the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad, we introduced you to a related poetry collection on Twitter. Now you get to read it in handy blog post format!

Allow us to present INTO MY GARDEN by David Caplan.

Into My Garden cover. A man walking in a fall forest of decidous trees that have dropped their leaves.

This collection was titled after the classic Chasidic discourses named Basi L’Gani, “I have come into my garden”. This is a quote from Song of Songs:

“I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride” (5:1)

The sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, expounded at length upon this quote. These discourses are called ma’amarim (singular = ma’amar) in Chabad-Lubavitch. The rebbe discusses Chasidic mysticism at length, in front of a (usually large!) audience. Here is a video where you can get an impression of what it is like to be in said audience.

Now! What does this have to do with poetry?

The Song of Songs is obviously poetry 🙂 But David Caplan also writes poetry about his experience in Lubavitch – including studying this maamar, watching other people study it, watching other people watch videos… This sounds very meta. It is in fact very meta. But it’s like this in Chasidism itself: there are maamarim about this maamar by the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. (He’s the one who people think of these days as “the Rebbe” of Chabad.)

I’ll share a poem because I feel like I’m giving all this abstract exposition, when Caplan’s poems are actually very immediate & sensory…

Into My Garden (II)

All week they studied what he is about to say.
Born after his death, they want more than stories,
want to feel how it felt to be in that room,
stand with the old men he blessed for long life and listen.

Under the white tablecloth, a handkerchief
wrapped around his hand bound his soul.
I have come into My garden, My sister, My bride…
Projected across the study hall, downloaded
and captioned, he closes his eyes and explains.

This is a moment that’s going to be familiar to people who are associated with Chabad in some way. I spent a decade attending the synagogue of a Chabad yeshiva, so it was both immediately recognizable AND a revelation: This moment can be something that appears in poetry?

Caplan has moment after moment after moment of Lubavitch life, Orthodox life. Poems about prayer. About studying in the study hall. About watching young yeshiva bachurim horse around. Not exoticized, but presented through the gaze of someone who did not grow up there, but ended up belonging there (Caplan talks about growing up Conservative elsewhere).

And with the best tools that American post-modernist poetry has to offer. Let me show more…

Even the Thief

A night of snow no one expected.
This late the study hall sounds different,
the same words said again, dark and glowing,
a window scratched with its mistakes.
Everyone knows God controls the universe,
my study-partner translates without a pause.

Even the thief prays for success. To know
what you feel, not what you ought to feel,
is there anything harder? At the airport,

a man with The Book of Genesis
tattooed down his leg boarded in front of me,
and I couldn’t help but wonder how it would feel
to have those words that close.

Caplan has a contemplative gaze that he turns upon himself too:

To get religious—what does that mean?

Sometimes it all feels like an improvisation:
the snow lifting from the tracks,
a hardboiled egg wrapped in foil, an extra
sandwich in case he meets someone who needs it.

He’s very aware that a good chunk of his readership is secular. But he goes on to write poems about prayer, and not just that; Jewish prayer. Mindfully, carefully, but also unapologetically.

Last year’s words sour in our mouths, useless:
last year’s failures.

Rain claws the roof.
Embarrassed to be heard, we need

to be answered. Too late for good manners,
each prayer jostles to break free.

– “Neilah”

And that makes you face yourself. (At least it made me face myself.) Why cannot this be done? Here, it can absolutely be done. Not only that, but it feels like it needed to be done; these poems needed to come into the world. (Like Chasidim would say about a maamar…!)

This is what covenant means: each night
he carries home
a briefcase no more than a brown paper sack

stuffed with names to pray for.

– from “Bris Milah”

The night’s symbols have performed their obligations:
the eggs smooth with salt water, the unleavened bread,
the pillows we lean into like a question. 

– from “Second Seder, Atlanta”

And Caplan has the same quiet thoughtfulness about the world around him as a whole. Not just when you are packed in with a bunch of people and doing Something Religious, but in the everyday –

Memory halves whatever it touches:
the harbor cleared of pleasure boats,
the pier ending before the dock.

A man too small for his clothes
leans into the story he tells,
the boy beside him, listening.

– from “Memory halves whatever it touches…”

No tide pools, no couples on the beach
where my parents met,

only whitecaps lifting into themselves,
bowing and lifting,

until each blurs into something else:
rocks pink with crab shells,

a workday of gulls circling trawlers,
indecipherable buoys.

–  from “Fisherman’s Beach”

Boys dressed like men race the stairwell as if to the singing,
as if to hear what My garden means:

seven generations caused God to withdraw,
seven generations drew him back.
All those years of talking—what did I learn?

And one more, “Old Recording” –

I know how to pray but not like this –

in the old recording, he repeats the blessings
we repeat three times a day,

his familiar accent and cadence, urgent and assured,
naming what is missing when I say

the same words, the certain knowledge
that each word needs to be said.

If you enjoyed this, the book can be all yours for under $10! (with free shipping too…)

“Other poets have made American poems from Jewish interpretive traditions; Caplan stands out in that he makes poems about the present-day people who try to live by those traditions.” – Stephanie Burt

 

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This week’s Torah portion: KI TEITZEI


It is time for our weekly discussion of the Torah portion!

This week we have Ki Teitzei, a portion filled with a lot of small details and lesser-known commandments! Including, yes, something related to birds…

Nesting Eurasian Coot. Photo by SkywalkerPL

But before we get to the birds, let’s discuss something else about the portion, based on Rabbi Shefa Gold’s always fascinating Torah Journeys

She notes that Maimonides counted the commandments in this portion and there were 72 of them. That’s a lot! We have all these commandments, so what do we start with?

(I note that it’s not “A list of a bunch of commandments”. If the Bible happened to be edited by an academic press, it would’ve been like that. Subheading 2! Underline! We are not an academic press either and can be forgiving of a lack of subheadings. 😉 )

No, the Torah portion starts with something rather unexpected: “If you go out to war against your enemies”.

How does that relate to the commandments?

Well, there are commandments about going to war too, but there is also a deeper meaning, as Rabbi Gold explains. This is about how commandments can be a struggle. Not just doing them (though I’d say, that too…), but also understanding and receiving the values and qualities they are meant to convey.

I am reminded of the classic Chasidic song…

“Essen esst zich, trinkn trinkt zich, vos zol men ton az es davent zich nisht”

Which means, eating and drinking work by themselves, but what can one do if the davening doesn’t go by itself?! Here is Avraham Fried singing it – probably a relatable sentiment.

As Rabbi Gold says:

“Ki Tetze begins by acknowledging the struggle. It’s much easier to be a decent human being when you are at peace… but there is a battle to be waged and that battle will try our decency, challenge our integrity and put every good intention to the test.”

What can be a struggle? Rabbi Gold notes that one possible clue comes from the title of this book of the Torah. Deuteronomy is called in Hebrew “Devarim”. Which also means THINGS (among other things).

(Are we covered in things already? I am covered in books…)

“One voice inside keeps saying that if only I would be more organized then the battle with clutter could be won.

Another voice whispers that perhaps the problem is deeper and the solution more radical.”


(We suggest the Marie Kondo method, it’s not only good for messes, but it also helped me resign from a job!)

Rabbi Gold also has a bunch of suggestions, some are related to the holidays… E.g., on Passover, instead of buying the extremely processed readymade kosher-for-passover food items, cooking and eating simpler foods. (We had to do this because of the pandemic and we survived!)

Another suggestion that you can try RIGHT NOW …welll, ok, *checks time* in a few hours… is about Shabbat.

She suggests that even if you don’t observe Shabbat traditionally, you try turning off the computer/TV for one day.

My friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who works so passionately for social justice throughout the rest of his week, turns off his computer before Shabbat and says,

“The world will just have to save itself for the next 25 hours!”

(He still managed to write several books this way, we have a small pile of them!)

And we also have a small pile of Rabbi Shefa Gold’s books – hmm, maybe it’s time for a bundle? (This also brings up one of Rabbi Jill Hammer’s books, because it was blurbed by Shefa Gold 🙂 )

But while we’re at Shabbat, let us enhance your Shabbat experience and your upcoming High Holiday experience at the same time with an excerpt from Wilhelmina Gottschalk’s The Sabbath Bee, from our imprint the Jewish Poetry Project! This book has prose poems, microstories and thoughts about Shabbat – often personifying it or presenting it by analogy to something else…. Like in this chapter: beads.

Beads
(Rosh Hashanah)

Shabbat clinks into place with the lacquered clarity of a bead sliding onto a necklace string. At this stage, the new Shabbat is clear and unmarked — a perfect pearl.

It takes its place along the length with nearly a year’s worth of Shabbats, each one engraved with the faces of all the people I saw that day. The workmanship is flawless.

Soon this bead too will grow heavy with the gilt edges of delicate designs, dozens of tiny faces etched upon its surface.

The necklace weighs down like a yoke upon my shoulders, almost choking me.

Is it heavier than usual, or do I simply notice the weight because I know that the jeweler will be coming soon, to examine each individual bead and determine the value of my year?

If you liked the excerpt, you can get the whole book:

The Sabbath Bee

It also has genderbent Shabbat Queen!! You need genderbent Shabbat Queen in your life.

The last tidbit I picked from Rabbi Jill Hammer’s The Jewish Book of Days – it is for today (12 Elul) and it relates to the theme of struggle and to the theme of the commandments.

She quotes from the Midrash Tanhuma:

“There were two sittings of Israel where they would meditate on Torah night and day. Twice a year, in Adar and Elul, all Israel would gather and engage in the battle of Torah until the word of the creator was established.” (Noah 3)

What kind of battle was this?! Rabbi Hammer explains. This was the classic Talmudic way of studying:

“Their method was to study in pairs, with each person bringing prooftexts and arguments to one another.”

She also notes:

“Both Elul and Adar are before harvest festivals (Passover and Sukkot). The tradition of Torah study during these months reminds us to gather in the fruit of the Torah as well as the fruit of the earth.”

What does this teach us?

“[T]wo study partners must listen carefully to one another’s positions while holding to their own points of view,” and this “trains us in how to have respectful conflict with one another.”

And if you liked this, we do have a Rabbi Jill Hammer bundle!

The Jill Hammer Collection

(Now that you’ve gotten rid of the things that do not spark joy, you can bring in things that do 😉 )

And at the end, back to the birds!

I just wanted to highlight some of the lesser-known commandments from this portion, and ask you for your favorites.

1. (My paraphrase) If you take a bird’s eggs, chase away the bird first.

Here I must say that I had to change the cover image for the portion, because my first choice had a license that explicitly ruled out its use in a context of chasing away birds. Therefore I can’t show it to you either.

2. If your husband is fighting with another man, don’t grab the genitals of the other man.

I remember being rather scandalized to realize that this was explicitly stated in the Bible, but I was young and innocent.

3. Fence in your roof, because if someone falls from it, that’s going to be terrible.

(Interestingly, the Talmud discusses people falling from roofs & things falling from roofs, so I guess not everyone put up a parapet, regardless…)

Thank you for following along! Now it is your chance to share some commandments you found interesting, either from this weekly portion or from any other! Chabad brings you the complete list, as per the Rambam.

Some other favorites that are timely:

* Not to destroy fruit trees even during the siege
* Not to insult or harm a sincere convert with words
* Not to move a boundary marker to steal someone’s property

Now it’s your turn!

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A poem for Elul! Teshuvah by Rachel Barenblat

To help along your repentance and self-reflection, we share this Elul poem from Rachel Barenblat’s Open My Lips: Prayers and Poems. This is one of two Rachel Barenblat collections we published in our Jewish Poetry Project imprint; the other one is Texts to the Holy.

Open My Lips cover art, featuring a painting of a hand wrapped in t'filin pointing at a place in the Torah text.

Teshuvah
by Rachel Barenblat

God and I collaborate
on revising the poem of myself.

I decide what needs polishing,
what to preserve and what to lose;

God reads my draft with pursed lips.
If I really mean it, God

sings a new song, one strong
as stone and serene as silk.

I want this year’s poem
to be joyful. I want this year’s poem

to be measured like flour,
to burn like sweet dry maple.

I want every reader
to come away more certain

that transformation is possible.
I’d like holiness

to fill my words
and my empty spaces.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

who will be a haiku and who
a sonnet, who needs meter

and who free verse, who an epic
and who a single syllable.

If I only get one sound
may it be yes, may I be One.

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Thank you for reading! If you appreciated this poem, we offer free shipping on the book within the US. We also have more information to entice you:

This volume of contemporary liturgical poetry is both a poetry collection and an aid to devotional prayer. Open My Lips dips into the deep well of Jewish tradition and brings forth renewed and renewing adaptations of, and riffs on, classical Jewish liturgy. Here are poems for weekday and Shabbat, festival seasons (including the Days of Awe and Passover), and psalms of grief and praise. Open My Lips offers a clear, readable, heartfelt point of access into the Jewish tradition and into prayer in general.

Those who wish to begin a prayer practice in English but don’t know where to start will find this volume offers several starting points. These poems could be used to augment an existing prayer practice, Jewish or otherwise ­— either on a solitary basis or for congregational use. For the reader of poetry unfamiliar with liturgical text, they can serve as an introduction to prayer in general, and Jewish prayer in particular. And for the pray-er unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, these poems can open the door in the other direction.

We offer another way of preparing for the High Holiday season as well – have you checked out our calendars for the upcoming Jewish year? We have cats and also plants, for the cat and/or plant lover in your life. Start your new year with us!