dear diary

Yesterday one of the Hebrew teachers at school sent a notice to the community email list about a missing item, “a clear plastic bag containing a small brown leather-covered diary.” Fortunately, he was able to email the list a few hours later to let us know that he had found it.

He teaches Biblical and rabbinic Hebrew (I’ll have him next year for Hebrew 7 and 8), and he is, simply, an expert. As my Mishnah teacher says, “If we don’t know about a Hebrew word, we ask –, and if he doesn’t know, then no one knows.” What makes this all the more amazing is that teaching Hebrew is his second career: He spent more than 20 years as a lawyer specializing in banking regulation.

In response to this email, one of my classmates, who is at home for now with his new baby, responded to the list: “Maybe it’s the sleep-deprivation, but –’s email about his lost diary sent my mind wandering: What gems might be found in the diary of –?” His imaginings follow.

I’m not sure if they will translate well to a non-rabbinical school audience. But I share them because they were funny to my class, which is having a rather hard time coalescing as a cohort. Our class dynamic is strained, to say the least, and there are several differing strong personalities. We’ve spent the last month at our weekly class meetings talking about who we are as learners, just to try to clarify expectations for how we each want our classes to go. We haven’t even been able to arrive at a general agreement about how to structure our class meeting time. In short, we are deeply in the “storming” stage of group development. It’s been difficult and quite frankly, for me one of the most stressful aspects of my experience in rabbinical school so far.

But today after class meeting, right when the email arrived, we just sat around the table and laughed. It gave me hope for our future as a class.

(Oh, and the diary in question actually belonged to the teacher’s grandfather, during his U.S. Army service in World War I.)

_______________________________________
Dear Diary,

Another day, another student mistaking the cohortative for the jussive. (Shoot me!) These youngsters wouldn’t know a verbal noun if it was giving them a neck message during community time. But, Diary, they do try.

“–, is this aphel?”
“No, it’s pe’al.”

“Oh, –, is this itpa’el in the first person plural?”
“No, that’s just nitpa’el.”

“–, is that the number 3?”
“No, that’s a bet in Rashi script.”

I need a drink.

Yours,

_______________________________________
Dear Diary,

I’ve had it! Yet again a student has alluded to me curling up at night with Jastrow. True, I do have a love of all things grammatical, but that doesn’t mean that’s all that I love. I also love linguistics and Near-Eastern-religious-history and Sasanian pop-culture. I won’t be pigeon-holed. It just so happens that last night I curled up with an article on the relationship between the rabbinic idiom “af al pi” and the Akkadian god of indigestion “Afalpian.” When I finished the article, I watched “Dancing With the Stars.” So there!

_______________________________________
Dear Diary,

What a glorious day! I have reached new highs in my pronunciation of the gutteral ayin sound. The throatiness, the hollowness, the sound of a choking animal — it’s all there. Perhaps my career trajectory will hold true: high-powered-attorney-turned-rabbinical-school grammar-guru-turned-Israeli radio-announcer. It’s all falling into place!

Lovingly,

a prayer for the children of abraham

Since the uprising began in March 2011, there have been an estimated 40,000 deaths in Syria.

But journalists are not flocking there. The conflict is not the main subject of every media outlet’s programs. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are not brimming with posts advocating for each side.

These Syrians, it seems — like the Rwandans and the Sudanese and many, many others before them — had the misfortune (on top of many other misfortunes) of being killed by their countrymen.

I have long maintained that I would rather do  . . . anything, really, . . . than talk about Israel and the Palestinian territories. I have many friends who are devoting their lives to the conflict, and I know that I couldn’t spend a day in their shoes. But last week I felt sick and overwhelmed, and reading the news from the region became an obsession. So here I am, again wading into the fray, again writing about a difficult issue.

I started this post the way that I did to underline the irrationality that underlies this conflict from left to right, from top to bottom. I understand that number of deaths alone isn’t an indication of merit for attention, and the contrast here tells me what is at stake are things other than the fact that people are dying, which is right about where the issue loses me. As it turns out, for many people, only certain deaths matter.

My Facebook friends basically fall into four groups: progressives, libertarians (hey there, DPR folks!), Jews, and family. (Of course among those there is a fair amount of intersectionality.) And I follow an even broader range of people on Twitter. I am guessing that everyone who posted about the conflict is convinced of the rationality of his or her position, but I’ve seen expressed everything from “Israelis are Nazis” to “Palestinians are animals.” My views are not fully developed, and I still found fault in what almost everyone posted. Which tells me there is necessarily a great deal of nuance to be embraced.

We only barely addressed the conflict at school. Even before the latest escalation in violence, we didn’t talk about Israel. There is even an agreement that topics about Israel/Palestine are not to be posted to community email lists, at least in part because of the many different opinions held by members of the community. (Since I’m new, I’m not completely familiar with the history there.) This is crazy. I’m not saying that the practice is not an appropriate response to a past situation. But it’s objectively odd that there exists a group of rabbis-in-training who don’t talk about Israel with each other (and I say this even as I am loathe to do so). However, in light of the current situation, there are now voices advocating that we do in fact start having these tough conversations.

On Monday, Hebrew College was a co-sponsor of CJP’s Rally to Support Israel, and the day before a letter was sent to President Daniel Lehmann questioning that sponsorship, signed by current and former Hebrew College rabbinical students. This prompted both a public response from President Lehmann, as part of his already scheduled “Community Update” address, and an email response from Dean Sharon Anisfeld (and no change in the school’s status as a sponsor). In a development that probably surprised exactly no one, it only took four responses to the dean’s email to get to, Your position means that you don’t care about me/my family. I was writing this post as that began to unfold. (Since then, more level heads have tried to prevail, with success for now.)

The one place at school that we did touch on the attacks was Hebrew class: My teacher started a discussion about the name of the IDF’s operation, “Pillar of Cloud,” a reference to the manifestation of G-d in the Torah that guided the Israelites out of Egypt. I suppose the effort was admirable, since there was silence everywhere else. But I can’t think of a topic that requires more careful or more precise language, and in Hebrew I can barely summarize an article about Israel’s indigenous plants. (Yes, this is an actual example.) Plus, my teacher is an Israeli whose entire family still lives in Israel. She laughed as she told us the story of her sister stubbornly driving on through rocket sirens, but she’s not where I would chose to start this difficult conversation.

I, too, have family (on my husband’s side), plus friends and classmates, in Israel; I don’t know anyone — or even know if I know anyone who knows anyone — in Gaza, such is the divide that exists in that tiny corner of the world. But I’ve seen too many claims of righteousness based on the fact of “having skin in the game.” In this conflict, in its current form, there is not — and there never will be — a winning side. I can only see death and despair — and more distance.

There were glimmers of reason among the overwhelming voices of intransigence. Two great primers came to my attention: how to support Israel without being racist and how to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. Wiser friends — and wiser friends of friends — than I wrote insightful words, and I am grateful to them. But the war of words paled in comparison to the actual war, and even I, as steadfast a believer in the power of language as there ever was, wondered what we were doing. As if an article could comfort. As if an email could soothe. As if a status update could transform. As if 140 characters could heal. As if a blog post (ahem) could assuage. We feel helpless, and so we fight who we can and how we can.

May there indeed be peace in our days.

*The title of this post is taken from an original poem at Velveteen Rabbi.

saying thank you

Being a student again after 10 years of not being a student is an odd experience. I have moments while sitting in class: “I can’t believe that this is my life now.” My responsibilities are to go to class and do homework. As hard as the transition has been in some ways, most of the time my life also feels like an incredible luxury. Perhaps even downright self-indulgent.

It is undoubtedly a huge time commitment: I’m at school most days from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (and some days later than that), with activities scheduled almost all of that time; if I’m lucky, I get two free lunch hours a week. But I spend my time at prayer, studying, and in class. I’m focused on my intellectual and spiritual development. Even at my job — staffing the school’s front desk weekday evenings and Sundays — I can do my homework, or write, or read.  The extracurricular optional and required activities are lectures, book talks, or other professional advancement or cultural opportunities.

Before I left D.C., I shadowed the rabbi at Sixth & I for an afternoon and evening, and she reflected with me on her rabbinical school experience. “I miss it,” she said. “I miss being around all of those holy folk.” I understand now what she means: I feel incredibly blessed to constantly be around such thoughtful people. I am stimulated and challenged all the time.

calling cards from Letter Writer’s Alliance

In response to this overflow of shared wisdom, I recently visited the Letter Writers’ Alliance — of which I am a proud member! — to purchase these calling cards. I’m planning to give the to my classmates and teachers with notes of appreciation. I gifted my first one on Tuesday!

Despite how much time school requires, I often feel guilty for not making time to do something for others. In D.C., I used to spend a fair amount of my time as a volunteer for various organizations, and I haven’t yet found space for that in my new life.

I am filled with gratitude for my life and the opportunities that I have. And next semester I want to challenge myself to move a little more out of the rabbinical school bubble.

seek always g-d’s face

בקשו פניו תמיד collage; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Last week the “Year of Shacharit” tefila group looked at the section of the prayerbook between baruch sheamar and ashrei (up next). As the group’s faculty advisor noted as he began leading us through the davenning, there are just “so many words” here. (Included in the section are a passage from II Chronicles as well as Psalms 100, 19, 34, 90, 91, 135, 136, 33, 92, and 93).) And it’s a mostly overlooked part of the liturgy.

The ideas in this section that most struck me while we prayed were seeking, wandering, and joy.

One of the first phrases that he brought to our attention was backshu fanav tamid, “seek always G-d’s face,” a quote from Psalm 105. Hebrew College Rabbinical School founder Art Green uses the idea in the title for one of his books on Jewish spirituality, Seek My Face. As he notes in his introduction, “Personal journeys seldom have a clear beginning, and they rarely have a definite end. If there is an end to our journey, surely it is one that leads to some measure of wisdom, and thence back to its own beginning. But somewhere along the way, we come to realize that we must know where we have been going, why we have been going. Most of all, we come to understand as best we can the One who sends us on our way.”

From here, the liturgy recounts G-d’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and our wandering in the desert — making explicit Art’s move above: seeking implies wandering. A journey.

The psalms that follow urge praise and bask in the comfort of the surety of G-d. One of my favorite phrases is one that we end up singing a fair amount during the morning service at school: ivdu et Adonai b’simcha, bo’u l’fanav birnana, “worship the Lord in joy; come before the Lord with flowery singing.” It’s not every far into this section of the prayerbook, but I think it’s a great finale to the actions thus far: Wander and seek — and then rejoice.

During our davenning our facilitator asked us to reflect: In what ways does G-d protect me as I wander?

G-d protects me by giving me the strength to handle whatever I encounter.

G-d protects me by reminding me of G-d’s previous promises to my ancestors.

G-d protects me by giving me support in form of family and friends.

G-d protects me by guiding me to resources.

G-d protects me by giving me health and wealth.

Seek G-d and G-d’s strength; seek always G-d’s face.

Worship the Lord in joy; come before the Lord in flowery singing

______________________________________________________

This post is part of a series about my year-long tefila (“prayer”) group. Read other posts about the group here. View my artwork inspired by the group here.

RAPE

Trigger warning: This post is about my struggle over the past few months with being triggered by various events, as result of my many years of volunteering at the rape crisis center in D.C. It doesn’t contain details of any sexual assault, but it nevertheless may be upsetting for survivors.

This is a hard post to write for many reasons — and not just because it’s highly personal. But I process by writing, and this issue has become part of my rabbinical school experience. And it will likely come up again.

I realized two weeks ago that I’ve been re-traumatized — and have been in that process for a few months — by a confluence of events. When it finally occurred to me, I felt enormous relief. Being able to put a name and a reason to what I’d been feeling was incredibly comforting. Then I felt stupid: How could I have not realized what was happening, and how could I not have realized how long it had been going on? I’d been feeling overly emotional, on edge, scared, out of control, hurt by things that were not personal, unable to hear anything about sexual assault without intense pain. And on and on. Basically, I felt crazy, and I didn’t know why. And I’ve felt this way before, and I’ve had this realization before. I just had to get there. AGAIN.

mlk quote on store window; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

It started during the pre-semester seminar at school, in which we looked at the Torah and Haftarah readings for the high holidays. One day in class we started talking about trauma. I don’t remember how we got there, and I don’t remember how we got out of there. I just remember sitting in chair, my brain screaming, “No! No! NO! No-stop-talking-stop-talking-please.” I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up. The presentation I wrote for the end of the seminar was,in retrospect, a clue that things were getting difficult.

I underestimated how triggering rabbinical school would be. By which I mean that I didn’t think about it at all. This, too, seems foolish in retrospect. There is no shortage of abusive texts in the Jewish tradition, and I think I’ve only touched a handful so far. From stories of sexual assault in the Tanakh to an explanation in the Talmud that women die in childbirth for not observing halakha, the fear and disgust of women is  . . . everywhere. When we read and discussed the story of the gang rape and dismemberment of an unnamed woman in Judges, I wanted to weep.

Compounding the experiences of reading these texts is being a Hebrew College student — a wonderful experience, but also one that has left me feeling more vulnerable than usual. This is a very earnest community, and I am asked to share of myself often — or at least more than I was in my everyday life in D.C. I thus feel more emotionally “raw” than I have in the past.

And then there was a sexual assault on the campus of Andover Newton Theological Seminary (ANTS), which shares the hill with Hebrew College. The president of ANTS came to an all-school meeting to . . . I don’t know: Give us more information about it? I couldn’t stay in the room to hear it. I was terrified. I had no idea what kind of training the president had, so I didn’t trust that she wouldn’t saying anything triggering. Was she going to tell us what happened? What ANTS was doing? Whether the rapist was a member of the community or a stranger? To what end? I don’t even think that “sharing information” serves any purpose, since the only way to stop rape is for rapists to stop raping. There’s simply nothing a potential victim can do to ensure his/her safety.

And then there was the election. With all of the rape. I am glad that dominant narrative was that these old men need to just stop talking — and I rejoiced when they all, to a one, lost their elections — but I still stand in shock that our nation’s leaders, to say nothing of their constituents, think it’s acceptable to make such callous statements about sexual assault survivors.

And then a friend of mine was raped.

Hence the title of my post. It has been as though in every direction I turned there was in front of me a giant neon sign. It hasn’t been this bad in many years. Most of the time, I can say “ouch,” and then move on. But not this time. This time, I felt buried under the avalanche.

I feel better now, better than I have in a while. It’s an unbelievably empowering action to be able to name what is going on. I am also doing more self-care, recognizing that some of my self-destructive behavior was a result of being triggered.

I know I’m going to feel “normal” again soon. I also know that I’m not going to make it through another five-and-a-half years if I don’t. I’m beginning to think about how to deal with what Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.” I hope that I’ll be able to try on a variety of options for engaging with these texts and with my tradition. There are women at Hebrew College who have done a lot of work in this area. I’ve thought about doing some writing, to perhaps give [my] voice to the voiceless.

For now, I am grateful just to feel more like myself. Which is challenging enough without the experience of trauma.

baruch sheamar

ברוך שאמר collage; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

בָּרוּךְ שֶׁאָמַר וְהָיָה הָעולָם. בָּרוּךְ הוּא.

בָּרוּךְ עושה בְרֵאשִׁית. בָּרוּךְ אומֵר וְעושה.

בָּרוּךְ גּוזֵר וּמְקַיֵּם. בָּרוּךְ מְרַחֵם עַל הָאָרֶץ.

בָּרוּךְ מְרַחֵם עַל הַבְּרִיּות. בָּרוּךְ מְשַׁלֵּם שכָר טוב לִירֵאָיו.

בָּרוּךְ חַי לָעַד וְקַיָּם לָנֶצַח. בָּרוּךְ פּודֶה וּמַצִּיל. בָּרוּךְ שְׁמו.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם, הָאֵל הָאָב הָרַחֲמָן הַמְהֻלָּל בְּפִי עַמּו. מְשֻׁבָּח וּמְפאָר בִּלְשׁון חֲסִידָיו וַעֲבָדָיו וּבְשִׁירֵי דָוִד עַבְדֶּךָ. נְהַלֶּלְךָ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ בִּשְׁבָחות וּבִזְמִירות. נְגַדֶּלְךָ וּנְשַׁבֵּחֲךָ וּנְפָאֶרְךָ וְנַזְכִּיר שִׁמְךָ וְנַמְלִיכְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ אֱלהֵינוּ. יָחִיד חֵי הָעולָמִים. מֶלֶךְ מְשֻׁבָּח וּמְפאָר עֲדֵי עַד שְׁמו הַגָּדול: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ מֶלֶךְ מְהֻלָּל בַּתִּשְׁבָּחות.

Blessed is the one who spoke — and the world was. Blessed is G-d.

Blessed is the one who creates in the beginning. Blessed is the one who speaks and does.

Blessed is the one who decrees and implements. Blessed is the one who has pity upon the earth.

Blessed is the one who has pity upon humanity. Blessed is the one who pays a good wage to one who fears G-d.

Blessed is the one who lives forever and is alive for all eternity. Blessed is the one who redeems and rescues. Blessed is G-d’s name.

Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, sovereign of the universe, G-d, the merciful father, extolled praiseworthy and magnificent, by the mouth of G-d’s people, by the tongue of G-d’s Chassidim and G-d’s servants, and by the songs of your servant David. We will glorify you, Lord our G-d, with praises and with songs. We will amplify you and exalt you and glorify you and say your name and crown you, our king, our G-d. Unique, life of the universe, king praiseworthy and magnificent, eternities of eternity, G-d’s name is great. Blessed are you, Lord, king extolled with praises.

This week the “Year of Shacharit” tefila group met to reflect on baruch sheamar, the opening blessing of psukei dezimra (“verses of singing”), a series of introductory prayers before the morning service proper. Our intensive look into this prayer was a little more intellectual than our past attempts. And, as with previous experiences, I was once again pleased by the alignment of form and content.

Baruch sheamar enumerates qualities of G-d, alternately punctuated with the refrains baruch hu (“blessed is he”) and baruch sh’mo (“blessed is his name”), so I’d always thought about the prayer as a panegyric. But I think the prayer is actually fairly specific in its praise: G-d is blessed because G-d does what G-d says. G-d follows through. G-d connects intention and action. There is a certain comfort (especially to a Type-A personality like me) in a G-d with those characteristics.

We examined the prayer in small groups, taking turns reading it to one another, and then we formed new groups to talk about parts that felt compelling to us. Saying and hearing this prayer — as its form of being prayed — seemed so right to me because in this prayer we praise G-d for what I would call “performative speech,” or changing reality with utterance. Human beings do so rarely (think “I do” in a marriage ceremony, or “you are under arrest”), but G-d does so often. It is one of the first characteristics we are told of in the Torah: “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light,” and there was light.” Perhaps it is the defining characteristic of G-d. I believe there are many ways to do so, but we often pray by saying prayer.

As far as the order of the liturgy, thinking about this prayer in relationship to birkot hashachar — prayers of thanksgiving — I wonder if we are now in the liturgy being called to create, to join in creation with G-d, that is to say: to act?

______________________________________________________

This post is part of a series about my year-long tefila (“prayer”) group. Read other posts about the group here. View my artwork inspired by the group here.

fall . . . winter?

fall leaves in jamaica plain; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I began this post a mere two weeks ago, and it’s already somewhat obsolete. Superstorm Sandy and an early snowfall knocked leaves off of most trees, essentially putting an end to the visual signs of fall. It’s already to gotten warmer again this weekend, so it’s still not quite winter yet. But I wasn’t sure about that on Wednesday evening.

But first! My original post included the observation that life is different in New England. And it’s not just the crazy sports fans and crazier accents. The passing of time is more clearly reflected in nature. There are distinct seasons — although I’m speculating about two, having experienced only two so far. It felt like summer when we moved to Boston, and it’s felt like fall for the past few months. But it’s not just a feeling: it’s looked like the seasons, too: a lush green summer with clear blue skies gave way to a bright, warm palette in the trees.

This is different from my experience growing up in Texas, where the seasons were “hot” and “less hot.” Green slowly turned into brown, which later became green again. But I spent my childhood and early adulthood thinking that we were in some ways faking it. Halloween and Thanksgiving could generally only qualify as “bearable,” and I remember spending a fair number of Christmas afternoons reading on the porch of my grandparents’ house. Chain stores stocked fall and winter clothing as a matter of course, but how many wool sweaters does one need when the temperature never really dips below 45 degrees (and that only in the middle of the night)? With the exception of the appearance of bluebonnets in April on the side of the road between Houston and Austin, the passing of time is in the mind.

first snow at hebrew college; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

On Wednesday I woke up to a grey day with a forecast of heavy rain, but early in the afternoon it started snowing. By the time I left school at 9:00 p.m. (after working at the front desk), there were a couple of inches on the ground, and it was still coming down. First, after years in D.C. — which panics at even the prospect of flakes — I’ve never been surprised by snow before. More to the point, I’d never driven in snow before (since I grew up in Texas and only walked and took public transportation in D.C.). I made my way home slowly, feeling for the sidewalk from the parking lot to our townhouse under the blanket of powder. I kept thinking, “It’s the beginning of November.”

Compounding the already pronounced effects of the onset of winter was daylight savings time just a few days earlier. It’s now dark when I get home after class most days (which also means that I think it’s time to go to bed at 8:00 p.m.).

So it’s not quite winter yet, but it doesn’t look like fall anymore. But at least it’s not still 80 degrees, as it was in Houston today!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,860 other followers