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Celebrating Jewish trans poetry day!

🎉 ✡️ Today is Jewish trans poetry day! ✡️ 🎉

Would you like a thread with ten handpicked poems from trans Jewish poets to celebrate?

Read & enjoy!

Poems will be in no particular order. I try to link poets' websites when possible, and their latest book (the poems I picked will not necessarily be from that book).

Purchase links will be Amazon associate links or our webstore, but we also rec your local bookstore & library.

Everyone is Jewish and non-cis in some way (trans, nbi, gnc, gq etc.), though specific identities of course vary. At least three of the poets are also intersex in addition to being non-cis.

There are definitely more than ten Jewish trans poets, this is not meant to be a comprehensive list. I encourage you to post your favorite poems #JewishTransPoets #JewishTransPoetry 🙂

I tried to pick both established & upcoming poets.

Joy Ladin @JoyLadin is one of the best-known Jewish trans poets. She taught English at YU until recently. Besides her poetry, she's also known for her memoir and other academic nonfiction work (I recommend those too!).

From Joy Ladin I chose "Pronouncement" from Drunken Boat:

"Sun just up, he is—you are—
twisting your torso toward the world, the true and fictional world

I thread, a true and fictional girl
blushing against a sun-shot wall"

https://d7.drunkenboat.com/db13/5sex/ladin/pronouncement.php

Her latest book is Shekhinah Speaks:

R.B. Lemberg @RB_Lemberg is a fantasist, poet, fiction writer, translator… (many hats!) who was born in Ukraine and currently lives in Kansas. Like Joy Ladin, they also write academic nonfiction too.

We are publishing their poetic memoir Everything Thaws early next year – growing up in Ukraine and Russia, climate change, migration and more.

"The Three Immigrations" originally in @strangehorizons will be partially incorporated into this larger work:

You can preorder Everything Thaws here (now in our Pride sale):

Max Wolf Valerio @hypotenusewolf (Blackfoot/Sephardic) was one of the first trans poets worldwide, and he is still active and creating. He's also a memoirist (The Testosterone Files).

https://hypotenuse-wolf.tumblr.com/

"OK I admit it. I was Greta Garbo, or was that–Shulamith Firestone?" in EOAGH reflects on another Jewish writer's work & takes it further –

"fertility songs are tattooed on the backs of trans men near our shoulder blades where our wings will appear"

His latest poetry collection is The Criminal: The Invisibility of Parallel Forces –

Sass Orol @OrolSass is a rabbinical student who has just seen their debut collection appear recently in our imprint: The Shortest Skirt in Shul.

Included in our Pride sale –

https://www.benyehudapress.com/books/the-shortest-skirt-in-shul/

Amazon is also doing a BIG discount now-

https://amzn.to/3MX8RxY

From Sass Orol I chose the poem "Brit" that's reprinted on the book's preview page (sorry, can't link directly; click through and then in the left sidebar):

https://www.benyehudapress.com/books/the-shortest-skirt-in-shul/

“But all of these things, if you don’t like the shape,
everything can be cut further.”

angelic proof is a Russian-Jewish poet living in Canada. "They are currently the Poet-in-Residence at the Roundhouse Community Arts Centre" (from their bio) and they are also a spoken-word performer.

https://www.facebook.com/angelig.unt

From them I chose "un [naming] / trans (After Golden)" in @FrontierPoetry. This is an awesome visual poem!

https://www.frontierpoetry.com/2021/06/25/poetry-un-naming-trans-after-golden-by-angelic-proof/

"the boys want [My Dick] \my romance
but can't handle [My Dick] \my transness"

Rivers Solomon @cyborgyndroid is primarily known as a fiction writer (most recently of Sorrowland, read it!!), but I read these poems on faer Patreon years ago and they came to mind immediately when starting to assemble this thread –

https://www.patreon.com/posts/some-poems-16999568

"We crawl
out on miniature knee caps, or scoot. We cannot hold
our heads up yet on this trail of cracked ovum shell,

on this path of scoliosis spine."
– from "Ibeji"
(cn from the author: late term pregnancy loss)

I think this is the only poem in the thread that isn't available free online, but I recommend backing faer patreon, fae is in the process of reorganizing it and you can give input to what you'd like to see in the future!

Fae doesn't have a poetry collection yet, so I'll put Sorrowland here:

AJ Odasso @ajodasso has a poetry collection The Sting of It, and they are also a fiction author and a poetry editor at Strange Horizons!

From AJ Odasso I chose "Sargasso Sea" originally in Remixt, reprinted in Intersex Quarterly (also a poem that's stayed with me for many years) –

"Back under. All spoils
but wayward gonads
plundered. Cervix
untethered, that
ungainly hatch."

Percy Amichai Hill @lianlianmin just started publishing poetry in 2022 ("a self-proclaimed baby poet") – I really liked all three pieces he had out so far.

This is his website:

https://lianlianmin.wordpress.com/

And for a poem from Percy Amichai Hill I chose "Kislev" in @olicketysplit:

https://twitter.com/olicketysplit/status/1513999850412642312

"here, i say, take a couple nickels,
chew on them, we'll call this gelt."

Adrian Belmes @adrian_belmes is an author, bookmaker and small press publisher of Badlung Press (check out Depression Cookbook, there is a free pdf); he was born in Odessa, Ukraine. You can find both him and his press here:

https://adrianbelmes.com/

From Adrian Belmes I picked "on our last night in the desert" in @perhappened

https://www.perhappened.com/lastnightadrianbelmes.html

"If we shout into the murk beyond the diamond-wire mesh, we will hear
the drunks next door shout back across the grainy night"

And here you can read Depression Cookbook edited by him, as a free download:

https://adrianbelmes.com/badlung-books

Bogi Takács @bogiperson is a Hungarian Jewish immigrant to the US.

This is me, but it would be weird to leave myself out (though it is also weird to add myself in).

I have a poetry collection, Algorithmic Shapeshifting published by @AqueductPress.

For one of my recent poems, you can try "The Prophet, to His Angel" in @FantasyMagazinehttps://www.fantasy-magazine.com/fm/poetry/the-prophet-to-his-angel/

"I swallow
the scroll you hand me,
fighting my body as you
reach into my throat
to push scripture deeper"

Thank you for reading! Now it's your turn to share your Jewish trans favorites! (Poems can be about anything!) Tell us about your own work too!

Confetti: 🎊🎊🎊

(Adding more bc I cannot stop)

Izzy Wasserstein @izzyxen has been writing more fiction than poetry lately (and has a great short story collection coming soon), but she's made her debuts with poetry.

This is one of my favorite poems of hers (we also posted it previously):

https://150kansaspoems.wordpress.com/2017/02/19/you-will-come-up-short-by-izzy-wasserstein/

"They will leave landmines in your path,
and when they do not know your path,
they will leave landmines everywhere."

Her latest poetry collection is When Creation Falls, but I'm also going to link her upcoming fiction collection

https://smile.amazon.com/When-Creation-Falls-Izzy-Wasserstein/dp/0996680195/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2CTLHR0K7RT1C&keywords=izzy+wasserstein&qid=1655417549&sprefix=izzy+wasserstein%2Caps%2C91&sr=8-1

All the Hometowns You Can't Stay Away From –

k. rowan jordan-abrams was also kind to share their poetry with us! This one is my favorite – "seventeen" from Brave Voices:

And because I see some people claim trans Jews are "new", here is a poem from the Middle Ages…

It appears in the book Even Bochan by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus (scroll down for Rabbi Steve Greenberg's English translation)

https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/135628?lang=bi

Now, some people say that the context makes it clear that this poem is satirical. Others disagree. That's a YMMV thing. However!

The existence of this poem shows that Jews in the Middle Ages could conceive of, and write about, gender dysphoria.

We don't know if the author was trans, but the poem itself is clearly about a trans *experience*.

And by the way, at the link these are @AbbyChavaStein's study sheets, and our parent publisher is going to bring you the expanded, BOOK version!

Stephanie Burt @accommodatingly is a poet and poetry critic! She teaches at Harvard and has had several volumes out + also a book about reading poetry, the amazingly titled Don't Read Poetry.

https://www.closecallswithnonsense.com/

For a poem by her I picked At the Parkway Deli, published in @foodandwine (which is kind of life goals) –

https://www.foodandwine.com/lifestyle/books/poem-at-the-parkway-deli

"You can know what you need
before you know why: shredded cabbage and mini-cukes
and sodium ions in water"

Her latest poetry collection is a chapbook, For All Mutants published by @RainTaxiReview

Something else: I am finding out about several trans poets that they are Jewish! Which is awesome!

I was expecting I'd also find out about Jewish poets that they are trans, which hasn't happened yet while making the thread. (Please don't out people who are not out)

Here is the entire, LONG version of the poem from Even Bochan by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, thank you @opensiddur!

Originally tweeted by Jewish Poetry Project | Jewish Trans Poetry Day! (@JPoetryProject) on June 16, 2022.

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Shavuot and beyond Torah sale

🌄 HERE IS OUR SHAVUOT SALE🌄

25% off on all our Torah titles (preorders too) & free US shipping!

https://www.benyehudapress.com/product-tag/torah/

Includes a recent Jewish Book Award winner… and also many of the books you can read about in our parsha series!

We’ll thread a bit…

(If you are wondering about our Pride sale, we’re also going to have one like last year, but it will launch after Shavuot. 😺 A very festive time!)

So! Torah!

#TorahInATimeOfPlague edited by Erin Leib Smokler now comes with the Jewish Book Award stamp on the cover 😻

All the history, theology, personal and scholarly reflections on TORAH + PLAGUE ⤵️

The Torah is often considered a document by and about men. But women have been there at the dawn of Jewish history, and since then, as spiritual leaders of many kinds.

Jill Hammer and Taya Shere write about The Hebrew Priestess, richly sourced:

Would you like a book for the young readers in your home that brings each week’s Torah portion up close?

An Angel Called Truth & Other Tales from the Torah retells classic stories from kids’ point of view –

We had an earlier thread specifically about this book, with excerpts, illustrations & more –

We also have books really quite not for children.

The Comic Torah: Reimagining the Very Good Book by Aaron Freeman and Sharon Rosenzweig does not shy away from the blood, the gore and the sex in the original 🙀

Truly a GRAPHIC novel

Here is a relatively more all-ages excerpt, but no less provocative!

Would you like poems? Would you like parsha poems?

We have some, with more in the works!

Sue Swartz tackles the emotional arcs of the five books of Moses –

I always feel fond of reading nuclear anything into the Bible, so here is a small excerpt featuring the priests…

(We’ve posted quite a few more excerpts from this book & you can find them by carefully searching our parsha threads!)

We are probably one of the foremost publishers of Torah poetry (and now we are also venturing into Talmudic poetry), so let’s take a look at some more –

Abe Mezrich writes poetic midrash on the parsha, with two volumes now available & a 3rd coming!

Here is the other volume:

https://www.benyehudapress.com/books/the-house-at-the-center-of-the-world/

You have one about sacred space, one about sacred community, and the third will be about bricks.

(no, REALLY)

(okay, not JUST about bricks)

For something very different, Isidore Century writes about the parsha and about New York Jewish life, sometimes simultaneously!

Coffee & bagels are involved. Yes, in the books of Moses. What would Mother say?

(We all know what Mother would say)

We also have serious books. Yes, we do.

Wrestling Jacob is one of those awesome backlist finds. This book exists & no one told me? (Here I am telling you!)

An intensely psychological take on Jacob & his family, with in-depth textual analysis –

We actually want to post a new excerpt from this one soon, but we’ve had some already… Here is something about who Jacob REALLY fights when he fights the angel.

(I can’t believe that was in the Bible! And in the absolutely plain sense meaning of the text!)

Another book that gives you that sense of discovery about what’s REALLY in the Bible is Esau’s Blessing from Ora Horn Prouser!

It takes a look at the disabled people in the Torah (and there are many of them)

Here we had a thread about Esau, and his extremely relatable struggles with leaving his hunting equipment at home.

I also must add this from the Psalms (ok, the Psalms were not given at Mount Sinai, but!) –

If you’re interested in something mystical, but at the same time want to do something… you can quite literally WALK through the Torah with Rabbi Shefa Gold –

This book presents the Torah – divided up into each weekly portion – as a spiritual journey that you yourself can take.

Every parsha has a challenge and a blessing… and yes, there are exercises!

Find your inner priest, it comes with cool clothing –

Torah can be greatly enjoyed in company.

If you’re looking for something to be discussed around the Shabbat table all year, you can try this book of matched Torah / Mishnah / Gemara tidbits!

Here is an interesting detail from Genesis –

Sometimes you want what you can’t have.

Here is the Book of Genesis without the letter E!

This only makes it more interesting…

“a lipogram — a text that avoids a particular letter — offers the virtues of discipine and restraint.”

Yes, but how do you say “Let there be light?”

(Click through and it’s actually on the book’s profile page)

However, sometimes what you want to have might already be at your fingertips.

We have not one, but two books about bibliodrama –

https://www.benyehudapress.com/books/bibliodrama-bundle/

Explore the Bible by acting it out! 📖 🙀😽😼😻

And to finish the thread, we also have a Bible-themed preorder.

Noted Jewish atheist Lawrence Bush examines the parsha in American Torah Toons 2 – with both commentary and art!

Here is our announcement thread, with an excerpt – and some LSD…

Order away!

We guarantee that the books will not arrive before the holiday, thereby not disturbing your cheesecake preparation.

(But you will get them soon after, and Torah learning never ends… 😽 )

Because we started this sale relatively close to the holiday, it will be open for about a week, and then we can do our Pride sale too 😺

Originally tweeted by Ben Yehuda Press | Shavuot sale pinned! (@BenYehudaPress) on June 2, 2022.

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Preorder sale: THE FIVE OUNCE GIFT by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

We have an announcement for you today! The Five Ounce Gift: A Medical, Philosophical and Spiritual Jewish Guide to Kidney Donation by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is available for preorders, and we have a discount on it (plus our usual free shipping within the US) until December 31.

This book tells you everything about kidney donation from a Jewish perspective:

  • Different forms of kidney donation
  • Why would someone (you?) want to donate a kidney
  • Kidney donation in Jewish law & tradition
  • Jewish organizations ready to help out
  • What is it like to receive a kidney
  • and more! With guest chapters and interviews, too.

Click on the preview image to see the discount! (You’ll also see the celebrity endorsements from people like Elizabeth Warren and Michael Douglas – there’s some surprising names in there, too.)

If you scroll below, we also offer a sample from the beginning of chapter 4, which talks about the kidneys in Jewish tradition. Do kidneys talk, and what do they say?

The Torah on Kidneys

Kidneys, in the idiom of the Hebrew Bible, give counsel. Inner conviction that English speakers associate with the heart, in biblical Hebrew comes from the kidneys. The Psalmist says, “I shall bless God, who counsels me, and even at night my kelayot (kidneys) instruct me.” (1) Some translators make the text more comfortable and relatable for English readers and render the verse as “my heart instructs me,” but this is a non-literal translation. (2)

An ancient Midrashic text draws on that verse to explain how Abraham discovered his inner conviction when there was no one to teach him.

Said Rabbi Shimon: His father did not teach him, his rabbi did not teach him,(3) so from where did he (Abraham) learn the Torah? Rather the holy blessed One appointed his two kidneys like two rabbis, and they poured out and taught him Torah and wisdom. That is what is written: “I shall bless God, who counsels me, and at night even my kidneys instruct me.” (4)

The rabbis were thinking about kidneys as symbols of spiritual impulses:

Our Rabbis taught: Man has two kidneys, one of which prompts him to good, the other to evil; and it is natural to suppose that the good one is on his right side and the bad one on his left, as it is written,(5) “A wise man’s understanding is at his right hand, but a fool’s understanding is at his left.” (6)

I remember feeling grateful after learning this Talmudic passage and hearing that the medical team was planning, as usual, to remove the left kidney. I can report, though, that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) was still alive after the surgery. I wonder what the rabbis meant.

An old English expression associates kidneys with one’s temperament or nature. One might say of one’s son, “I hope he will be of similar kidney to his mother.”

In some passages, the rabbis invoke both organs: “The kidneys prompt, the heart discerns.” In the Selichot liturgy, (7) we say “bochein kelayot valeiv” (God searches one’s kidneys and heart). There is wisdom and truth there. In a radical passage in the Book of Psalms, we learn that God “acquired” our kidneys in our mothers’ womb. (8) This is to say that our kidneys never belonged to us! Was God already planning to use one of our kidneys for someone else’s body? Was God preparing a cure before an illness even existed?

  1. Psalms 16:7
  2. In the singular form, the Hebrew word for kidney is kilya. The verse uses the possessive kilyotai (“my kidneys”).
  3. Meaning, of course, that Abraham had no rabbi.
  4. Bereishit Rabbah 61:1
  5. Ecclesiastes 10:2
  6. Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 61a
  7. Selichos, Artscroll, p. 498, based on Jeremiah 11:20. Selichot are special prayers recited for several days leading up to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.
  8. Psalms 139:13

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Chanukah Day 8: Now with 100% more lightning!

Chag sameach! We have reached the end of our series of eight posts with readings about light – all kinds of light, from the lights of Rebbe Nachman to the lights of secularism. Make sure to check out our previous offerings:

Day 1: Ra’u Or: Essays in Honor of Dr. Ora Horn Preuser edited by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Day 2: Everything Thaws by R.B. Lemberg

Day 3: Thirty-Two Gates of Wisdom: Awakening Through Kabbalah by Rabbi DovBer Pinson

Day 4: Here Is Our Light: Humanistic Jewish Holiday and Life-Cycle Liturgy for Inspiration and Reflection, edited by Miriam S. Jerris and Sheila Malcolm

Day 5: An Angel Called Truth & Other Tales from the Torah, by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons, with illustrations by Pete Williamson.

Day 6: The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2021 by Rodger Kamenetz

Day 7: Enlightenment by Trial and Error by Jay Michaelson

Now we’re upping the ante and not just talking about light, but about lightning!

We picked the following excerpt from Rabbi Jill Hammer’s Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah. This book features an entire new translation of the classic Kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah, with chapter-by-chapter commentary, and meditative exercises. The following section covers the expression “the look of lightning” (כמראה הברק) from chapter 1:8.

Our Chanukah sale is still ongoing, and you can get all three of our Jill Hammer books for the price of two! That’s almost $25 off, and with free shipping within the US… But let’s read!

The Look of Lightning

In the previous passage, we heard that the divine dwelling place is at the center of the sefirot, so that the sefirot reach out in endless rays from the divine. The hollow sefirot and the engraved letters seem meant to conduct divine energy, power, or intention throughout the cosmos. Our current passage tell us that these ten rays are in fact infinite, and that they have the “appearance of lightning.” It seems that they are flashes of energy, or that flashes of energy appear in them, moving back and forth. God’s word, like lightning, flashes from the sacred center, moves through the depths of the sefirot and out into their endless reaches, and returns to the sacred center. Sefer Yetzirah calls this movement “running and returning.”

The use of lightning to describe the sefirot is evocative. Physicist Kared Barad writes: “Lightning is a reaching toward, an arcing dis/juncture, a striking response to charged yearnings.” Lightning arises from “electrical potential buildup and flows of charged particles.” While the physics of lightning may not have been available to the author(s) of this text, the flash of lightning certainly was. The lightning that moves within the sefirot is very much like a flow of charged particles, an electrified reaching toward divine presence.

Ronit Meroz understands this section to be describing the sefirot as a group of angels, similar to the “holy beasts” in Ezekiel who bear the divine throne. Meroz argues that beings that can “bow” before God must be “personified” supernatural beings – angels, in the form Jewish tradition usually understands angels, rather than anything “abstract.” Meroz writes: “It is the angels who always set out on God’s mission, and of whom one may therefore say that ‘his word is in them.’” Meroz asserts that the sefirotic angels have “humility and reverence” for God – they are entities capable of having a personal attitude toward the divine.

Yet are the sefirot truly personified? God’s word in these beings does not “command,” but rather “runs and returns” – the sefirot are conduits, not servants. Perhaps we might call them angels, but they are also hollow endless entities, and the divine word runs and returns in them like an electric current through a charged wire. They may be conscious, but they hardly seem like Michael or Gabriel. It may be that the sefirot bow not (or not only) because they are reverent in a personal way but because they are channels sensitive to the movement of divine creative power. The bowing of the sefirot is a theotropism of the whole universe.

The sefirot act as a collective – they are a multiplicity with a single purpose. They move together after God’s word, and they bow together before God’s throne. These multiple forces are channels for one “singular master.” Yehuda Liebes indicates that many of the sections of Chapter 1 start with multiplicity and end with oneness, as if to show the reader how all is drawn toward the One.

*

Thank you for following along with us, and we hope we managed to bring a little additional light into your life!

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Chanukah Day 7: On Jewish enlightenment

Chag sameach! We hope you had a great Shabbat and now we are also back with our light-themed Chanukah series. This time around, we opted for something that examines light from an abstract perspective – discussing Jewish enlightenment. No, not the Haskalah (not this time at least!), but rather spiritual enlightenment.

This excerpt is from rabbi and LGBT activist Jay Michaelson’s Enlightenment by Trial and Error. (If you’ve been following our Twitter account, you might also know him as the author of a certain popular poem about David and Yonatan 😉 )

Also make sure to check out our previous instalments:

Day 1: Ra’u Or: Essays in Honor of Dr. Ora Horn Preuser edited by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Day 2: Everything Thaws by R.B. Lemberg

Day 3: Thirty-Two Gates of Wisdom: Awakening Through Kabbalah by Rabbi DovBer Pinson

Day 4: Here Is Our Light: Humanistic Jewish Holiday and Life-Cycle Liturgy for Inspiration and Reflection, edited by Miriam S. Jerris and Sheila Malcolm

Day 5: An Angel Called Truth & Other Tales from the Torah, by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons, with illustrations by Pete Williamson.

Day 6: The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2021 by Rodger Kamenetz

And now for today’s reading…

What’s Different About Jewish Enlightenment? (Excerpt)

Earth’s crammed with Heaven
And every common bush afire with God
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“Enlightenment” is sometimes regarded as a purely “Eastern” concept, foreign to the Western monotheistic religions. Yet the most important book of Kabbalah takes its name (Zohar) from the prophet Daniel’s (Daniel 12:3) prediction that “the enlightened (maskilim) will shine like the radiance (zohar) of the sky.” Who are these maskilim? The Zohar says that the enlightened are those who ponder the deepest “secret of wisdom” (Zohar 2:2a). What is that secret? The answers vary from tradition to tradition. Sometimes the secret is the substructure of reality, the human, and God, organized in the sefirot. Other times it is that the Torah’s literal meaning is not its true meaning. And sometimes, the deepest secret is nonduality: that, despite appearances, all things, and all of us, are like ripples on a single pond, motes of a single sunbeam, the letters of a single word. The true reality of our existence is One, Ein Sof, infinite. The appearances of separate phenomena–you, me, the book, the table–are just temporary arrangements of the letters of the alphabet, momentarily arrayed into words–and then, a moment later, gone.

One common Kabbalistic formulation of this principle is that God “fills and surrounds all worlds”–memaleh kol almin u’sovev kol almin. This formulation is found in the Zohar (for example, in Zohar III:225a, Raya Mehemna, Parshat Pinchas) and other medieval texts, such as the twelfth century “Hymn of Glory” which says that God “surrounds all, and fills all, and is the life of all; You are in All.” For example, Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, part of the circle of medieval mystics thought by scholars to have composed the Zohar, is recorded as saying “he fills everything and He is everything.” His colleague Moses de Leon wrote that his essence is “above and below, in heaven and on earth, and there is no existence beside him.” Leit atar panui mineha, “There is no place devoid of God” (Tikkunei Zohar 57).

Similar utterances occur throughout Jewish mystical history, particularly in the writings of Lurianic Kabbalah and Hasidism. In the words of the sixteenth century systematizer, Rabbi Moses Cordovero, “Everything is in God, and God is in everything and beyond everything, and there is nothing else besides God.” “Nothing exists in this world except the absolute Unity which is God,” the Baal Shem Tov is reported to have said (Sefer Baal Shem Tov, translated by Aryeh Kaplan in The Light Beyond). A later Hasidic master, Rav Aaron of Staroselye, wrote that “Just as God was in Godself before the creation of the worlds, so the Blessed One is alone [l’vado] after the creation of the worlds, and all the worlds do not add to God (may he be blessed) anything that would divide God’s essence (God forbid), and God does not change and does not multiply in them, and the worlds (God forbid) do not add anything additional to God” (Shaarei haYichud v’HaEmunah, 2b).

Such statements may be quite familiar to followers of other mystical traditions, and students of the “perennial philosophy.” Yet there are some distinct, and related, features of the Jewish conception of enlightenment, both in content and presentation, that distinguish it from others. The one I want to focus on here is that “all is one” is not the end of the spiritual journey, but in fact, precisely at its middle.

Whereas some traditions regard the knowledge of nonduality as the ultimate wisdom – enlightenment is the last stop of the road, so to speak; the final teaching – in the Jewish mystical tradition, nonduality is, in a sense, the beginning rather than the end of the wisdom. Jewish mystics begin with the shocking, and proceed to the ordinary. The Zohar, for example, spends much less time describing Ein Sof than it does with the details of the sefirot (emanations), not to mention angels, demons, and the mythical stories of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his circle. Likewise Cordovero, who devotes many pages to parsing the details of emanation and cosmology. Ein Sof is the basis, rather than the conclusion, of Jewish mystical theosophy. Nonduality is also the ground of religious practice, rather than the culmination of it. Never antinomian except in its heretical movements, Jewish conceptions of enlightenment do not end by transcending the conventional.

Hasidim, in particular, understood the enlightened consciousness not as a ‘steady state’ but what they called ratzo v’shov, literally “running and returning.” This phrase, from Ezekiel 1:14, has come to stand for any number of oscillations in spiritual life – for example, between expanded and contracted mind, being and nothingness. And it was understood that a mystic would have to experience such oscillation, as he (always he) contemplated the highest unity at some times, tended to the needs of his family and community at others. Often, the tzaddik, the leader of the Hasidic community, was expected both to enter the highest states of what we might call God-consciousness, and to provide for the community’s material and spiritual needs.

*

Jay Michaelson goes on to explore differences and similarities further, but we will stop here for now. Our last excerpt for the holiday goes live tomorrow (G-d willing). Thank you for following along! Also make sure to check out our buy 2, get 3 holiday sale – there is still some time…

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Chanukah Day 6: Some prose poetry!

Chag sameach! Our holiday sale is still ongoing, and so do our holiday excerpts centered around the theme of light.

Day 6 of Chanukah arrives with a prose poem from our forthcoming retrospective, The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2021 by Rodger Kamenetz. If you’ve read and enjoyed his poetry (or his nonfiction!), or if you’re new to it, it will bring light into your life – quite literally.

Before we start, you can also take a look at the earlier updates:

Day 1: Ra’u Or: Essays in Honor of Dr. Ora Horn Preuser edited by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Day 2: Everything Thaws by R.B. Lemberg

Day 3: Thirty-Two Gates of Wisdom: Awakening Through Kabbalah by Rabbi DovBer Pinson

Day 4: Here Is Our Light: Humanistic Jewish Holiday and Life-Cycle Liturgy for Inspiration and Reflection, edited by Miriam S. Jerris and Sheila Malcolm

Day 5: An Angel Called Truth & Other Tales from the Torah, by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons, with illustrations by Pete Williamson.

And now, let’s read this poem inspired by the Rebbe Nachman of Breslov!

To Add Light to a Name by Rodger Kamenetz

after Rebbe Nachman Sichos HaRan #44 “On the topic of a person’s name”

Am I a misspelling? Perhaps there are too many versions for any to be convincing. In one version you will bless intricacies. I see in the fey of rafael a dangling yod. And a white bet traced in black which meaning calls house. I will bet on a hidden bet the b-b-b-b of first creation. Letters inside letters spell hidden lives. The rebbe said I will take your name and permutedo not say it is a trick. Do not say this! It is a great work to add light to a name.

Or in a dream to seal a body in light to brave a darkened door. To wrap wings of presence around trembling shoulders. Every word has secret doors. I will find levels in my name or stumble through a trap. There is a trope in your name rebbe. You drew me into yours and we fell together in the Nameless Who says I kill and I make live.

All around me I saw live the light in every name.

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Thank you for reading! We will be back after Shabbat 🙂 Shabbat shalom, chag sameach and chodesh tov!

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Chanukah Day 5: We Will Burn What We Have

Chag sameach! For the fifth day of Chanukah, we have a story from one of our children’s books, An Angel Called Truth & Other Tales from the Torah. The authors, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons retell stories about each Torah portion and the holidays for a middle-grade readership, with Pete Williamson’s fun illustrations! This full-color book is great for the whole family, with discussion questions that will also make parents think.

We’d also like to remind you that our holiday sale is still ongoing! Get 3 books for the price of 2. And make sure to check out our readings for the previous days around the theme of light:

Day 1: Ra’u Or: Essays in Honor of Dr. Ora Horn Preuser edited by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Day 2: Everything Thaws by R.B. Lemberg

Day 3: Thirty-Two Gates of Wisdom: Awakening Through Kabbalah by Rabbi DovBer Pinson

Day 4: Here Is Our Light: Humanistic Jewish Holiday and Life-Cycle Liturgy for Inspiration and Reflection, edited by Miriam S. Jerris and Sheila Malcolm

And without further ado, here is today’s story…

We Will Burn What We Have

Around 2,200 years ago, the King of the Seleucids, Antiochus, began to persecute the Jews. He ordered a statue of the Greek god, Zeus, to be placed in the Temple, and that pigs should be offered as sacrifices on the altar (both of which were completely forbidden to the Jews). The king’s behaviour resulted in a revolt against the Seleucids, led by Judah the Maccabee. The Maccabees won. And so began a process of cleaning up the Temple, making it ready to be dedicated again (the Hebrew word chanukah means ‘dedication’). We have imagined a tale told by a young boy who has been working with his father on the clean-up project.

“Silence please! Please do sit down. We’ll begin in a few moments.” Dad’s trying to get the crowd to settle, so we can start the dedication ceremony. But everyone wants to congratulate him, and he can’t help being the chattiest person around. “Oh yes! It does look good doesn’t it? Thank you, thank you. It was a team effort really. My boy, yes that’s him over there, very helpful!” He nods in my direction. I swell with pride. “It was a mess, filthy; pigs roaming around, idols everywhere. I wasn’t sure we’d ever get it back to where it is today. Yes, yes, oh, do please settle down, settle down.”The past two months have been amazing. My back hurts from hauling away rubble. My arms hurt from scrubbing. My legs hurt from all the ladder-climbing. But it’s been great fun and the temple looks amazing; everything is shining, there’s not an idol to be seen. Today is going to be great.

Dad is in charge of lighting the Ner Tamid, the everlasting light. He deserves it; he’s worked harder than everyone. As a hush settles over the crowd, he swells with pride.

“Bring forth the sacred oil,” Dad calls out. Nobody moves. We all wait. “Who has the oil?” He calls out again, this time starting to sound a little anxious. Still silence.

Then I realise that no one has remembered to get hold of new oil. We are all in big trouble. No oil, no everlasting light, no dedication. And the oil presses were a four-day donkey ride away – four days there, four days back. Then I remember I have seen a tiny flask of oil, with the sacred seal still attached. Everything else has been thrown out. I push through the crowd to get to the store cupboard and scramble through everyone back to the front of the crowd as quickly as I can. “Dad, we’ve got this,” I say, opening my hand and showing him the tiny vial of oil.

Dad looks unimpressed. “It’s not enough, son – there’s no point.” I refuse to give up. “Go on, Dad,” I say. I’m out of breath and embarrassed, but after everything we’ve been through, I’ve got to believe it’s worth a try. “Don’t quit now. Let’s burn what we have.” And, somehow, it was enough.

Questions:

Have you ever held yourself back from doing something because you thought you didn’t have ‘enough’?

Do you believe in miracles?

Chanukah doesn’t appear in the Bible. Why do you think it’s such a favourite festival?

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Thank you for reading! Next time, we are planning on showing you… prose? poetry? Hmm, how about some PROSE POETRY?

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Chanukah Day 4: Light from a Humanistic perspective

Chag sameach! Every day this Chanukah, we’ve been sharing readings on the theme of light from books we published. You can find the previous days here:

Day 1: Ra’u Or: Essays in Honor of Dr. Ora Horn Preuser edited by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Day 2: Everything Thaws by R.B. Lemberg

Day 3: Thirty-Two Gates of Wisdom: Awakening Through Kabbalah by Rabbi DovBer Pinson

Today we have something from Here is Our Light: Humanistic Jewish Holiday and Life-Cycle Liturgy for Inspiration and Reflection – Celebrating 50 years of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, edited by Miriam S. Jerris and Sheila Malcolm. Humanistic Judaism approaches Jewish tradition from a non-theistic perspective, so that people who do not believe in G-d can also feel included in community observances. The book surveys major Jewish lifecycle events and holidays, and features rituals, songs, blessings (strictly non-theistic ones!), readings and more.

Light: Energy, Emblem, and Expression (Chanukah) by Rabbi Denise Handlarski

The theme for this evening is light: energy, emblem, and expression. Light is not only a form of energy, but one of the reasons to light lights at this dark time of year is to restore our own energy. Similarly, the energy of our community is restored with the contributions and new energies that new members bring.

Lights are an emblem – of both Shabbat and Chanukah, of tradition (many of us associate the glow of candles with our own Jewish upbringings or home celebrations), of community – as lights are often lit in the company of others, and of continuity. We light candles to signify a passing of the torch l’dor v’dor from generation to generation. We mark traditions and celebrations through the sharing of light.

Lights are also an opportunity for expression. In the Humanistic Jewish tradition, we not only offer a blessing on lights, but we also offer a dedication – a wish or an intention for each candle to represent our hopes, yearnings, or thoughts. The word Chanukah means dedication, and so as we dedicate the candles we will dedicate ourselves anew to our Jewish community, heritage, peoplehood, and our commitment to Tikkun Olam – repairing the world, and respect for all people.

…New members are a source of light to us. They provide us with light as energy, emblem, and expression. They are the new energy that continues to make Oraynu Congregation dynamic, stimulating, and fulfilling. THey are the emblem of our continued success in finding a Jewish home for those who want to live culturally, meaningfully, and authentically as Humanistic Jews. And they are the expression of our hopes that our community, movement, traditions and celebrations will continue long into the future.

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Chanukah Day 3: About the Endless Light!

Chag sameach! Today we’ve reached Day 3 of Chanukah, and our light-themed holiday highlights from books we published. Make sure to take a look at previous instalments and also peruse our holiday buy 2, get 3 sale!

Day 1: Ra’u Or: Essays in Honor of Dr. Ora Horn Preuser edited by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Day 2: Everything Thaws by R.B. Lemberg

Today we picked something Kabbalistic – a chapter from Rabbi DovBer Pinson’s Thirty-Two Gates of Wisdom: Awakening Through Kabbalah. This book goes through introductory Kabbalistic concepts in a gate by gate format, and also explains how each concept relates to our everyday lives and interpersonal relations. These days people talk a lot about boundaries, but how do boundaries relate to the endless light? We can find out…

Gate 2: Ohr Ein Sof – The Endless Light

There is no way to relate to Essence, for we are of Essence. There is nothing outside of Essence, nor any division within it. Relationship suggests duality; essence is singularity. What begins with essence ends with essence, and there are no-things in between to obstruct that singularity.

Yet – and this is the supreme mystery – we are relational beings. Our brains are built to project definitions and distinctions, to compartmentalize and contextualize, and to relate to apparent separations as if they actually exist. Binary oppositions dominate our perception in our daily practices. This is like bening awake, yet day-dreaming that we are asleep.

Our brains are hard-wired to break life into projects. Our consciousness is an instrument created to negotiate a three-dimensional universe, which encompasses definitions. Without the ability to make distinctions, the mind has a hard time grasping what we call reality. Because of this, we feel separated from our Essential Source. The yearning to awaken to our Source is the fuel behind everything we do.

The kabbalistic ladder of metaphors, worlds, gates, and practices is the path to our gradual awakening to our true state: Unity.

The highest gate, the ultimate metaphor for Reality, is ein sof, ‘No End’ – Infinity. The ohr ein sof – Light of Infinity – metaphorically shines within Essence like a beginningless, endless light within the orb of a boundless sun.

Within the orb of the ohr ein sof there is no shadow, color, or limitation. There is nothing to bind the infinite light. In ein sof anything with even the semblance of a sof, an ‘end’, is ein, ‘not.’ Ein means ayin – absolutely no-thing. In Hebrew ayin and ein are spelled the same.

In personal terms: When we are fully engaged in expressing our endless selves, there is no room for a relationship with others. Relationships can only exist with boundaries. Without boundaries, our light would pour forth, leaving no room for anyone else.

To enter the gate of ein sof is to become One with the Infinite Divine Light. All we need do is stay true to what we subconsciously already know: I am no-thing. I am not an independent, separate I and the ein sof is within Everything.

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Thank you for reading! Tomorrow we’re going to share something from a radically different Jewish movement…

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Chanukah Day 2: poetry from Everything Thaws!

Chag sameach! To celebrate the festival of lights, every day we are posting an excerpt from one of our books with the theme of light. There will be poetry, prose, nonfiction from multiple Jewish movements, Kabbalah, and more. Please see the previous entries:

Day 1: Ra’u Or: Essays in Honor of Dr. Ora Horn Preuser

Today we are going to feature a segment from R.B. Lemberg’s upcoming poetry memoir Everything Thaws. This book discusses the author’s childhood in the Soviet Union, migration, climate change (the title is very literal), and Jewishness. There is also an ice dragon!

The author

Quite a few of you were asking about this book, and we have great news – the manuscript just came back from editing yesterday, the text has been finalized, so now we are able to show you excerpts! Preorders are also already open. (We’ve seen the cover already and it’s going to be breathtaking!) Make sure to check out our earlier Twitter thread too.

This part is about the northern lights, and as such quite fitting for the occasion – even though it deals with difficult topics like violent antisemitism.

The excerpt is from Chapter 1 (not directly from the beginning):

When I came back to Ukraine
after a year in Vorkuta
I drew the northern lights to show my classmates. I drew myself
dragging a little sleigh, head up to the vast shimmering road in the sky.
It was my road
that showed me the way when I was six –
white, wide, stretching across the black winter sky
in complete silence, under the immovable permanence of the cold.

“You’re lying,” my classmates yelled, and later
the whole class trapped me in the school attic
and beat me, screaming that I was a Jew
who believed in G-d (remember, these were Soviet times
and believing in G-d was forbidden)
and that I was lying
about the northern lights I saw in Vorkuta.

They had never seen the Northern lights, but they knew
what a Jew looked like.

A Jew looks like me.
A Jew
looks like this person with too much curly hair and an eating disorder
and too many academic degrees and too much
change, less than a model immigrant
from too many places
to too many places,
never believing that I will be heard
because people have trouble believing
that things exist that they have never seen.

Every time I open my mouth or flex my fingers to write
I am putting a brave face upon the thawing permafrost.

I am not lying. I am just
constantly changing languages, idioms, continents, genders, homes, and I am
not even sure how to mourn from this vantage,
let alone perform any other human activity
let alone be a good
anything:
a good child, a good immigrant, a good parent, a good spouse, a good
writer
(only if I’m silent)
(squeezing my lips shut so tightly)
(clenching my fingers)
(trying to fit)
(always trying to fit)
(remembering that where I’m from, a Jew
cannot be good by definition, a Jew
must become a person instead, become a Jewperson and then simply
a good Soviet citizen
but secretly a rootless cosmopolitan

who never speaks anything but the purest Russian
who eats no herring or raw garlic under any circumstances
before going out,
because everybody knows that Jews stink of those two things.

This is the one permanent axis of my identity,
that I am a Jew: that is
a rootless cosmopolitan
at home nowhere
in no language, in no country, not even among other Jews, eating
herring and garlic with a sense of deep satisfaction
that comes with the hope that, living in the Midwest,
nobody’s going to surreptitiously sniff me for that
telltale stench of a Jew which
cannot be spoken of in polite society,
cannot be uprooted,
cannot be forgotten
or forgiven;
only silenced.

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Thank you for reading! Tomorrow we’ll follow with the Kabbalistic mysteries of light…