Monday, December 22, 2008

In Memoriam


Tomorrow is my birthday; today, a sunny cold afternoon, I stand at the computer, crying for a woman I didn't know.

"Except for its marauding hand--"


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Two New Books of Interest

Two rather different but equally interesting books that have come my way recently are The Jewish Graphic Novel, edited by Samantha Baskind and Ranen Omer-Sherman, and Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self, by Carole Kessner. I'll be reviewing the latter for The American Jewish Archive Journal, and the former, well, at a publication to be announced. The Jewish Graphic Novel makes a strong case for the tremendous importance of the genre to the exploration of modern Jewish history and the modern Jewish psyche. The Syrkin biography is a welcome addition to the small but growing body of work on this brilliant, mercurial woman, whose career as journalist, poet, educator and Zionist activist is paradigmatic of her time, place and cultural milieu. So, as they say, just in time for Hannukah...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Catching Up

Spent some time yesterday catching up on blogs I've abandoned for months, some longer.

Started with my own rabbi's blog, Shalom Rav, which has been tracking his trip to Iran. Sounds like quite a journey for him, and one that makes me proud (again) to be at JRC. When I picked up my daughter last night, he motioned me over, wanted to talk Hafiz & Persian Poetry. Can we swap in some of that for the Marge Piercy & Rami Shapiro in the next edition of Kol Haneshama? No offense to MP and RS, but Hafiz is world-class work.

Ah, but what translation? That's the kicker, in't? Take a look here--the "Songs of Hafiz" website --and tell me if any of them strike you as liturgy-ready. My hunch is no, alas, so we're back to square one.


I spent a fair while over at the the Velveteen Rabbi, whose detailed account of the Rabbis for Human Rights conference was both fascinating and encouraging. (Note to self: do NOT read comments on Ha'aretz articles. They depress you, cut you off at the pass. The comments, not the articles. When tempted, read VR instead.)


Josh Corey, a youngish Jewish American poet (i.e., younger than I am) is in a slough of sorts, at least according to his blog:
Caught in the feedback loop of silence. Wanting to write—there's no more futile emotion. You have to want to write something. And I am writing, here and there, but it never seems like the thing. But wanting it to be "the thing" is what defeats me.
He goes on to quote an "astonishing passage" from Louis Hyde's introduction to a collection of essays by Thoreau:
A Thoreauvian prophetic essay leads us on a redemptive journey... but there is a redemption of the valley as well, one that comes from abandoning all hope of getting it together. If you need to come apart, you do not need to listen to the prophetic voice. Stop trying to be a hero. There is a time to fall to pieces, to identify with the confusion of your life as it is, confined absolutely to the present November sunset and your present apartment. (Emphasis added.)
And responds:
This is exactly what I needed to hear, exactly the cure for the itch of objectless ambition, or more simply the desire to "get it together": to seamlessly synthesize a life that, in its multiple spheres—writing, new fatherhood, marriage, teaching—resists all my efforts to be glued into a whole. If I can take Hyde's advice and be an upended Thoreau, who goes not into the woods but deeper into his own messy life, maybe I'll find my way back to the writing that matters to me, without letting everything else go any more to pieces than it already is.
Good luck & God speed, Josh, as they say. If you read this, and have some ideas, send them his way.

More catching up tomorrow, I hope, and slowly--ever so slowly--I'll make my way back to poetry per se. (If you're reading, say hello! I could use the Shamu'ing.)

Eine kleine exit music, please!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Two Cheers for Chrismakah?

A little email exchange this morning with my daughter's religious school teacher. The letter's signed by my wife, but we both had a hand in it:
Dear ---,
Thank you for your message about "Chrismakah." The decision of which holiday to celebrate, and how, and when, is a very sensitive and difficult question for interfaith families. Certainly Eric and I have gone through plenty of arguments and unhappiness over this, and most of the other mixed couples we know have had similar difficulties.
I feel fortunate that Eric is now willing to celebrate Christmas with me. We have been married for 20 years, and there was a time when any expression of Christmas was very uncomfortable for him. For some couples, celebrating a Christian holiday at all is simply not an option because it would make the Jewish partner extremely unhappy. Eric, for example, was raised with a deep-seated aversion to anything related to Christmas, and it has taken him decades of marriage to get past that.
This aversion is much more common than you might think. For couples who face it, a "Chrismakah" celebration may be the only way to find a middle ground. It defuses what would otherwise be an explosive conflict in the house, and can be a very helpful step towards having an actual celebration of both holidays.
This year, Chanukah and Christmas fall on the same day, and in our household we plan to celebrate them both at the same time by observing Christmas according to my Catholic faith, and by lighting Chanukah candles for the Jewish members of the family. We agree with you that this is the best way to celebrate in a mixed family. But if other interfaith households find that having a "Chrismakah" celebration lets them avoid quarreling over what to do for the holidays, Eric and I--and our children--think that this may actually be a very good thing indeed.
With appreciation for your dedication to the kids at the religious school,
A teaching moment for my kids, at least. I had a blast, on the way to school, talking my daughter through the things we'd have to cut from holidays in order to make them "purely" Jewish. (First step, scrap the Passover seder. Symposia are echt goyisch, non?)

Syncretism gets a bad rap, says I. Or, to quote the poet (Ogden Nash): "Purity / is obscurity."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Bar Mitzvah Blues (1)

My son's Bar Mitzvah celebration looms.

It's about three months away, and I must confess, the thought fills me, not with joy, but with deep disappointment. Anger, even.

Clearly I'm going to have to get over this by the time March rolls around, and indeed much sooner. But as long as I'm blogging, I might as well tell the truth.


My own Bar Mitzvah was a joke of epic proportions. I went into it eager to write a D'var; the rabbi, a pompous wretch, explained that he, not the boy, wrote the commentary. All I had to do was deliver it. I had no idea what the words coming out of my mouth meant; the service meant nothing; even the presents, aside from my first guitar (thanks, Uncle Fred!) were a disappointment. Coffee table books about Hawai'i, where we lived at the time. A few bonds. (Can you tell I'm still bitter?)


One good anecdote: guests from the mainland, at the Sunday brunch after, heaping their plates with sashimi, thinking it was lox. Not a bad metaphor for the whole process, I'd say, but I like sashimi too much to insult it that way.


But it's not the memory of my own Bar Mitzvah that sours me on my son's. What does? First off, I'd say it's disappointment. For years I tried to improve the religious school at my synagogue. I worked on the school committee; I wrote curricula; I intervened when my son got bored. None of it, I am sorry to say, made any lasting difference. Things are as bad now as they were six years ago, at least as my children report it to me. The religious school director who got sacked two years ago never managed to get buy-in from the teachers for the most interesting changes, which means that they've just kept chugging along doing what they've always done. And that's just not good enough.

One year, one of seven, was different. Last year he came home excited, wishing the classes were longer. He stopped doing the pullout extra Hebrew, joined the main class, loved the discussions (ethics, Jewish American history, etc.) . I helped one of his teachers write a curriculum unit on Jews and the counterculture in America, which he loved.

That experience sent him into this year's class eager to pick up where that left off. Oops. New teacher, oversized class, no classroom management, dull topics, no focus, complete disaster. "Looks like they've totally given up teaching us Hebrew," says he--this when, two years ago, he was starting to work with a college level textbook in pullout sessions.

It took me years to get over my own wasted time in supplementary school. I really thought I could spare my children that, but I haven't been able to, and that galls me.


Day school? Don't make me cry. I'm in an interfaith marriage, and I'm not sending my kids to a school where they'll be taught--directly or by implication--that their parents' marriage is a bad thing.

This means that I have to be my children's primary Jewish teacher. Which was fine with me, and I happily did, for many years. Then something happened. What? And how do I get it back in the next three months?

I'll post on that as this series goes on. Need to talk myself out of, back into something, and I don't have a whole lot of time.


Oh--here, to keep this relevant, a poem. Leonard Cohen, from Book of Mercy:
All my life is broken unto you, and all my glory soiled unto you. Do not let the spark of my soul go out in the even sadness. Let me raise the brokenness to you, to the world where the breaking is for love. Do not let the words be mine, but change them into truth. With these lips instruct my heart, and let fall into the world what is broken in the world. Lift me up to the wrestling of faith. Do not leave me where the sparks go out, and the jokes are told in the dark, and new things are called forth and appraised in the scale of the terror. Face me to the rays of love, O source of light, or face me to the majesty of your darkness, but not here, do not leave me here, where death is forgotten, and the new thing grins.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Stray Thoughts

It's Friday, and I posted something to one of my other blogs yesterday, so today I'll try to put something up here. Slow & steady, for the rest of this school year at least. (Then I'll "recalculate," as my wife's GPS likes to say out of nowhere, and decide whether to send them all to an honorable retirement.)


Dinah writes: "I look forward to hearing more from you about prayers and poems -- especially how verse form affects the use and meaning of prayers, and about the inner poetic structure of the Psalms."

Gosh, I don't know much about either of these, Dinah.

The closest I can come on the former ("how verse form...") is to say that when I was a boy, the Mourner's Kaddish had such complete authority of sound that I didn't care what it meant, phrase by phrase. I knew the general sense from the English version on the facing page, and that was enough to tether my flight. This became the model for how I read Cummings, then "Prufrock," then Pablo Neruda's Versos del Capitan and the Residencia poems, my first loves in the art.

For me it's not the verse form that's significant in connecting poetry & prayer, but the imaginative projection that one does in reading verse. Take the poem, I tell my students, as a script for you to say; the same holds true for the siddur. This is why I sometimes flinch at my rabbi's suggestion that we ignore the words of, say, the Amidah & "pray what's in our hearts." The script can be used to unlock things "in our hearts" that we didn't know were there--associations, emphases, sudden insights--and as a means of self-transformation. Pouring out the heart can do the same, but it also can stay entirely superficial, just as rote as any fixed prayer-form. Especially when everyone's watching their minyan-mate from the corner of their eye, trying not to be the last one standing:
Shacharit is going fast
But that guy wants to make it last
Wake me up
When the Amidah ends...
As the boys of Green Day sing, or would.

(I'd like that even more as a Yom Kippur parody. "Wake Me Up When Neilah Ends.")

--Time to wake the kids. More anon.