prison psych

“I can think of one thing that is worse than being sick and in the prison ward here at the hospital. Being well and at Riker’s.” – CPE supervisor

“The midnight shift here on the prison ward is way better than working during the day at the 23-hour lock-up on the island.” – NYC corrections officer

“I would rather try to kill myself than have to go back to Riker’s.” – prison ward psych patient

Working at the prison psych ward this summer has confirmed for me just how bad Riker’s Island is. And the prison psych ward at Bellevue Hospital, where I am interning this summer as a chaplain, is pretty damn bad.

Almost every day I go through airport-like security to reach the floor. Armed corrections officers abound. Often there are folks in the hideous orange jumpsuits, and in leg chains and handcuffs, and the lucky ones shuffle towards an elevator that will get them to their transportation to court, to Riker’s, upstate to Sing-Sing. The less fortunate are pushed in hospital beds. I wait for one mechanized gate, with its once-white, peeling paint, to slowly slide open. I enter a holding area and wait for it to close. At the end of the hallway, another officer unlocks a door. I enter and wait for her to lock it again. She walks to another white metal gate, with yet another officer sitting on the other side, and opens it. I am finally on one of two prison psych wards.

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

I walk past men — they are all men, and the vast majority men of color — in faded blue scrub tops and gray sweatpants. Milling around the hall. Walking deliberately around the hall, because some days that’s all the exercise they can get. Shouting in the hall. About using the telephone. About getting a clean shirt. About talking to a doctor. About . . . something unintelligible. Sleeping in their rooms. Using the bathrooms that abut the halls with huge picture windows.

There are tons of corrections officers here, too, as many as there are patients. During my first visit to the floor, the chief psychiatrist warns me, “They are not here for your protection.” They sit in chairs, as do staff who are assigned to the patients under “constant watch.” There is a lot of sitting. There is nowhere to go.

I check in at the nurse’s station: Is there any patient I need to avoid today? I walk around the hall — only the main hall; the second hall, ironically with absolutely no corrections officers, is too dangerous — and ask if anyone wants to talk to the chaplain. Sometimes I knock on doors, where there are two to three patients per room. I usually don’t have to walk long to get a taker.

We walk to an interview room. The patient enters first and sits on the opposite side of the table; I am closest to the door. If he is under constant watch, the staff member sits outside. And then the patient and I talk.

Some of them have committed the kinds of crimes that you read about in the Post: Man tries to kill girlfriend and then himself. Man takes [unusual weapon] to co-workers. Man assaults officers on the subway during rush hour. But some of them are simply folks with mental illness whose behavior has been criminalized. Man shouts in an unruly manner on street. Man violates probation. Man pandhandles. And yet others are the result of decompensation in isolation, or not, on Riker’s.

What I have been struck by most is the detail of care afforded patients by the system — and its simultaneous profound inhumaneness.

Several mornings a week I attend a meeting of the unit’s principle staff: psychiatrists, psychiatry interns, social workers, social work interns, nurses, and clerks. The meeting starts with a report from the head night watch clerk. He goes through what happened with each patient the night before in minute detail. Who got what medications, who refused medication, who slept when, who was awake when, who ate what, who was in what mood.

Then they go over new admissions. They discuss discharges (which always means back into some part of the criminal justice system). And then one of the doctors presents presents her patients in detail. She talks about medications, psychological state, progress. The social worker adds information about the criminal case, family, records at Riker’s or other institutions, contact with lawyer. (A different doctor will go the next day.) Then the daily lists are created collaboratively: Who is at what “level” (and therefore has more or fewer privileges); who can get a haircut; who is going to court; who can attend groups. The information is mostly in these professionals’ heads: They are very familiar with their charges. And everyone refers to each as “Mr. So-and-so.”

There are groups: art therapy, music therapy, spirituality, community meetings. I run what’s called a “Healing Circle” once a week. Almost every day there is recreation on the roof. General freedom of movement on the unit. Three meals a day, plus snacks. Several televisions.

And yet.

There are no personal possessions, which is helpful since the patients are (inexplicably, to me) moved almost every day. The lists created include who needs to be forced to shower. The walls echo with clinical phrases like, “irritable upon approach”; “responds to redirection”; “sexually preoccupied”; “displays suicidal ideation”; “exhibits disorganized thinking.” The view of the East River is almost completely obscured behind feet of thick wire screens. There is an almost uniform schedule for their movement through the criminal justice system (“Arraignment on Wednesday means a court date on Monday”). Most of the men can’t tell you why they were arrested, much less how they ended up on a prison psych ward. Very few of them will ever experience life outside of an institution.

Adding to the feeling that these men are utterly lost to us is the fact that they almost all have the most common American names. Johnson, Smith, Brown, Williams. John, Michael, Jeffrey, Kevin. Pick a combination, and they’re probably there.

And then the most crushingly heartbreaking of all: Occasionally there is a patient called simply “Unknown Male.”

We know so much and yet virtually nothing about them.

I don’t doubt the motivations of the staff of the unit. I’ve never heard anyone speak about the men under their care with anything but respect and sympathy (okay, sometimes tinged with frustration, but I think that’s reasonable). But the truth is that this care can only go so far. It inevitably runs up against the fundamental philosophy of a system of mass incarceration: that it is acceptable, even preferable, to put certain human beings in cages. The cages in prison psych encompass the entire unit, instead of individual cells, but that doesn’t make them any less inhumane. And all the pastoral care in the world isn’t going to change that.

standing divorcing at sinai

This year my husband and I split up, an extraordinarily painful process. And because Gd has a (brutal) sense of humor, this past semester I got to take a Lifecycle Seminar class that focused primarily on weddings. This is my final reflection for that class. (I was mercifully excused from having to write a wedding drasha for a ceremony.)

Rabbi Avi Weiss, drawing on a longstanding Jewish tradition of Shavuot as the occasion of the wedding between Gd and Israel, writes:

At Sinai, God and the people of Israel stood at the base of the mountain be-tahtit ha-har (Exodus 19:17). Commenting on the word be-tahtit, the Midrash concludes that we, the Jewish people, were literally standing beneath the mountain — much like bride and groom stand under the huppah, the bridal canopy during the wedding ceremony.

But there’s another, less felicitous, interpretation of the standing be-tahtit ha-har. Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes:

According to the traditional interpretation of this strange biblical locution, God uproots Mount Sinai from the ground and holds it over the people, saying, “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here shall be your grave” (Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 2b). The implication seems to be that the Jews accepted Torah only through coercion.

Though not unique in Jewish tradition, for one passage to have such divergent interpretation is not insignificant. What does it mean for a symbol of a wedding to also be understood a sign of duress? These are not the happy thoughts that might typically spring to mind when considering the Jewish marriage ritual, but this Shavuot the Israelites’ committing themselves to Gd has had a particular resonance for me.

I attended my divorce hearing the morning of May 11. Because of unexpected circumstances, my soon-to-be ex-husband was not present. He was represented by his lawyer, who submitted a notarized statement on his behalf. The judge asked me to aver both that “the marriage has irretrievably broken down” and that “there is no chance of reconciliation.” I hesitated for just the slightest second. I know she was looking for just a spoken affirmation of the statements; indeed, the process for our uncontested divorce was highly ritualistic, since we had already submitted a written, notarized separation agreement when we requested a hearing two months earlier.

But it seems to me that those two statements are not actually able to be answered with any kind of certainty. “Irretrievable”? “No chance”? I consider the resuscitation of our relationship highly unlikely, but I can’t know what the future holds. And I felt similarly when we got married. Though I was not asked during the ceremony to affirm any unrealistic statements (such as the traditional Christian vow of “until death do us part”), the specter of “forever” was nonetheless present. Again, even under the huppah I considered the dissolution of our relationship unlikely, but I couldn’t know what the future held.

Both at the beginning and at the end of my marriage I said what I was expected to say. But I wonder if in so doing I was back at Sinai along with all of the other Israelites chanting na’aseh v’nishma (“we will do, and we will understand”) — traditionally interpreted as a sign of our deep commitment to Torah. We are the people who first promise to observe the laws of Torah and only then to study them. We say this before revelation, according to the rabbis, and this is how they the solve the problem of the appearance of coercion that one of those Midrashim creates: We may have been threatened by Gd, but we had already accepted Gd’s conditions.

The nature of this acceptance of Torah speaks to my experience of the institution of marriage. I never felt the weight of the change in my legal status in entering into it as I have in leaving it; it’s been in the dissolution of the relationship have I’ve really understood its weight. Maybe it’s the same with Torah: It’s easy to accept but hard to keep. And the comparison could go even further: Even if the Israelites had decided to understand Torah first, they most likely would have never gotten to the acceptance. They might not have had time — after all, we spend our lives struggling with how Torah speaks to us — or they might have decided against it — after all, we are warned against overwhelming converts with too much Torah.

In the end, revelation and marriage are acts of faith. There are simply no guarantees in entering new relationships, and especially in formalizing them, even when both parties know each other pretty well. Gd and the Israelites had generations of monogamy, to put monotheism in human relational terms, before matan Torah. And many disappointments were to follow it.

This is (perhaps) a dour read of marriage. And I acknowledge that it is informed by where I am right now in relation to my divorce and to the institution of marriage. I doubt that I will be asked to perform an weddings anytime soon — but I couldn’t do it responsibly right now even if I were. I am too cynical about “happily ever after,” and I can’t stand the undimmed excitement of betrothed couples. Maybe my attitude will change radically with time. More likely, I hope I’ll be able to incorporate some of my current views into useful pastoral perspective. I can imagine that it might be helpful for some couples to have marriage taken off the pedestal and put in a more realistic context.

So maybe I am back at Sinai again, saying na’aseh v’nishma. I’m doing the process of healing with the faith that it will lead me to understanding.

forfeiting the right to worship gd

I originally gave a version of this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on January 18, 2015, on the Shabbat of MLK Weekend. It also appeared on jewschool.

“We forfeit the right to worship Gd as long as we continue to humiliate Negros.”

Using the language of his time, so said Abraham Joshua Heschel in a telegram to Pres. John F. Kennedy, just before their meeting. Heschel was talking about the structural racism of the 1960s: He had just met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King at a conference and was getting more involved in the civil rights movement. With this message, he signaled his desire to move the religious community to take action and make personal sacrifice in solidarity with the black community. “Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent . . .The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spirituality audacity.”

Heschel was a poet as well as a rabbi and a scholar, and even though — or maybe because — his medium was a telegram, I know he chose his words carefully when he made this radical statement.

On the one hand, “forfeit” can have an active connotation of relinquishing, or letting go. In this sense, “forfeiting” means you surrender a claim: When you plead guilty to a crime, you forfeit trial by jury.

On the other hand, “forfeit” can have a more passive connotation, of something being taken. In this sense, you are deprived without your assent: When you are convicted of a crime, you forfeit your freedom.

I think Heschel wanted to say both. Moral action is a prerequisite to relationship with Gd. For Heschel, racism means that we are saying no to Gd. And it also means that Gd is saying no to us.

Parshat Vaera, which we just read, is dominated by the story of the many plagues on Egypt and the grand confrontation between Gd and Pharaoh. It’s easy to overlook that what sets the stage for the high drama is actually the Israelites. Gd promises to Moshe the people’s liberation and its inheritance of land, but when Moshe tells the Israelites of the promise, he is rebuffed (Exodus 6:9):

.וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

This is usually translated as something like: “And Moses said so to the children of Israel, and they did not listen to Moses, from anguish of spirit and from cruel oppression.”

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

Literally, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, translated above as “anguish of spirit”, means “shortness of breath.” It’s the only such occurrence of the phrase in Tanakh. Everett Fox renders it “shortness of spirit.” Ramban wants to suggest that that the Israelites were “impatient” for their salvation. It is no doubt hard to hear a promise of redemption while waiting for freedom. We can hardly look to the future while we’re focused on the present.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה: What we learn is the Israelites were weary in soul and body. But it’s the spiritual bondage מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ that is forefronted. It is the principle problem.

Alternatively, we can understand רוּחַ – spirit, breath — as the divine, as in the primordial force of creation, the רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים/spirit of God that hovered over the chaotic universe (Genesis 1:2).

So the Torah then is making a very specific theological statement here: Gd is in short supply. Gd is as limited a resource as the straw that the Israelites no longer have to make the bricks that they are still expected to produce. That in fact the Israelites are cut off from Gd.

In the Exodus story, it’s a given that Pharaoh and the Egyptians aren’t in relationship with Gd. Indeed, Gd says on more than one occasion that what is happening is so that Egypt will know that Gd is Gd. But it turns out that the Israelites are in no better of a state.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ: The Israelites are cut off from Gd. The Israelites have forfeited their relationship with Gd.

Both King and Heschel would appreciate the coincidence of this parshah and this holiday. They both saw the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt as powerful metaphor for the civil rights struggle. Sometimes we celebrate this holiday as if the work is done. We like to think that we abolished slavery in this country in 1863. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with Jim Crow laws that established systemic segregation in public resources. And we like to think that we struck down Jim Crow in this country in 1965. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with a criminal justice system that functions to enact racialized social control.

Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, there has been a call in this country for recognition of the fact that black lives matter. The killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and the nearly 1,000 other black people since then have only intensified the call for an end to the state violence that seeks to control black bodies and souls.

This summer I worked at an organization that was part of several coalitions working to end the use of solitary confinement in New York jails and prisons. As if our penal institutions aren’t bad enough. We put human beings in cages. And then within those cages, we put those human beings into other, smaller cages.

I had the privilege this summer of working with two formerly incarcerated men who spent time in solitary confinement. They survived, and and they now spend their days trying to make sure no one else has to. The other, who was a teenager behind bars: “I felt isolated, sad, helpless. I remember crying a lot. When I was 16, I couldn’t identify these emotions a lot of times. My default emotion was anger, which led to aggressive behavior like lashing out, overcompensating, and violence. Prison itself, not just solitary confinement, is an attack on your soul.”

We, they, the free, the incarcerated, the criminals, the police, the oppressors, the oppressed, the Israelites, the Egyptians, everyone. We are all “cut off from Gd.” We have forfeited the right to worship Gd.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hold in state control — behind bars, on probation, or on parole — seven million Americans, or one in every 31 adults today.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we disproportionately incarcerate black folks, when 13% of the population constitutes 40% of people behind bars.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we kill a black person every 28 hours.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fail to hold accountable a man who kills a teenage boy walking home from the grocery store with Skittles and iced tea in his hoodie.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we sentence a black woman to 20 years for availing herself of the same Stand Your Ground laws that excused the killer of that teenage boy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we leave a black man’s body in the street for 4.5 hours after we kill him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we can offer black transgender women an average life expectancy of only 35 years.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fatally shoot a 12-year-old black kid with a BB gun in a park seconds after spotting him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we text a union representative after a police shooting instead of calling an ambulance.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that require a 24-year-old to spend life in prison for three marijuana sales, a decision that the sentencing judge calls “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we have been so derelict in indigent defense that our American Bar Association says, “The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hide behind a slogan of “tough on crime” a system that can only be described as a tool to maintain white supremacy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when, for selling loose cigarettes, we strangulate a black man on the street, his last words, “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner was מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ.

When we can’t breathe, we forfeit the right to worship Gd.

Every year on this Shabbat, we talk about Heschel and King. We tell how Heschel marched with King in Selma. We show the picture of the wild haired, bearded rabbi linking arms with the cooly quaffed reverend, the whole group festooned with leis. And we reflect on Heschel’s words: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Heschel is our way into the work that King did. We can celebrate the extraordinary impact that King had on this country because we were part of it. Heschel’s commitment to King’s work is illustrative of the Jewish community’s solidarity with people of color.

We’ve got to stop telling that story. That was half a century ago. If after 50 years, we don’t have anything else, we’ve forfeited the right to tell that story.

I think we may have something else. I see it in the arrests of Jews on New York’s Upper West Side last month in response to a call to action by communities of color with whom Jewish racial justice organizations are in relationship. I see it in the active participation by young Jews last month in a meeting in Boston’s Jamaica Plain for white racial justice organizers, following black leadership. I see it in the Chanukah action organized last month by the Boston Jewish community, which many in my community attended. I see it in the fact that you are reading this now.

Today, I want us to begin a new story, a story of how we recognized this moment in history for what it is, and we could not be silent, and we could not be still; a story in which we bore witness to the degradation and violence that we sanction every day; a story in which we acknowledged that until we are right with each other, we cannot be right with Gd.

I want us to tell that story to our children.

short in stature, outsize in personality

i started trying to walk in my grandmother's steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

i started trying to walk in my grandmother’s steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

My grandmother died this summer.

She was 96 and had lived on her own until age 92, when she suffered a stroke on the same day as her identical twin sister, who was living 800 miles and three states away (and who sadly passed away just a few days later). Because of the selflessness of my aunt and uncle, the last four years of her life she was able to continue to live in her home of 30 years, in Austin, Texas — cared for by the two of them and two wonderful home aides.

Gay Barr Wilkes had a full life and passed away surrounded by people who loved her. Her death is the kind we probably all aspire to; it’s certainly not a tragedy. But it’s still hard. In some ways I lost the Granny Gay I knew my whole life on the day of the stroke that reduced her so much. But I could still hug her and talk to her, and even though she didn’t say my name anymore, I knew that she knew who I was. And I knew that she loved me as much as she always had.

My mom is struggling with mourning both her mom who was and the one who she became in those last years. I am struggling with feeling so far away from my family the vast majority of the time that the force of this important event seems to have only struck a glancing blow. Did I really say goodbye to Granny Gay when I moved 2,000 miles away? I couldn’t make it to say a final goodbye in person, when her body began to shut down and we knew the end was near, but I was incredibly privileged to be able to organize a final farewell — because my family let me design her memorial service.

In the conversations my aunt and I had in the weeks leading up her my grandmother’s death, I asked about plans for the memorial service. I am, after all, training to be clergy: I think about the rituals of life transitions all the time. My grandmother was a woman of faith more than of religion, and since the Methodist minister of the church that she and my grandfather would on occasion attend had since moved on, my aunt wasn’t left with a meaningful choice for an officiant. (Ever the planners, my grandparents had long ago purchased a package with a local funeral home — meaning that the location and other arrangements had long since been finalized.) With many deaths, a non-family clergy member is needed, or just wanted, to hold the space for mourners. My family wasn’t wracked with grief, though; more than that, I wanted to lead the service. It’s something I knew I could do, and do well, for my family. And my aunt was trusting enough to turn it over to me.

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother's Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother’s Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Everyone got a part — daughters, sons-in-law, nephews, grandchildren. I was in awe of how eloquent they all were in sharing different parts of her life and talking about what she meant to them. I lost it when her oldest grandson, my cousin Seth, started crying when he spoke about Granny.

He had lived with her and Papa as when he finally finished his undergraduate degree almost 10 years after high school. Discouraged by his slow progress, he complained to her that he would be 27 by the time he finished at the University of Texas at Austin. Her response is a piece of advice I’ve turned to many a time during my winding journey to where I am today. “You’re going to be 27 anyway.” Time passes by regardless, she had reason to know, so you might as well do what you want to do.

Seth also provided an important antidote to the rhapsody that inevitably occurs at funerals. He talked about a time when she was wrong, admitted it, and changed her behavior. Of course, that ultimately makes her even more worthy of praise.

I lived in Austin for five years, from 1997 to 2002, the only of her children and grandchildren there at that time. I got to spend lots of time with her and my grandfather, precious time of eating dinner, doing laundry, and studying at their house. I am thankful that I was smart enough to recognize it even then for the gift that it was. After college I moved to Raleigh, then to D.C., and finally to Boston, my trip up the Atlantic coast taking me farther and farther away from her. I don’t know how much of my new path to rabbinical school she ever understood (and I mean that literally, as she had already begun deteriorating from the stroke when I went back to school), but I am sure she was proud of me to the end.

When I was very young, she told me, “Salem you can be whatever you want to be.” As a child I later slightly reinterpreted her words when my mother announced it was time for bed: “Nope! Granny said I can do whatever I want to do.”

I’ll be almost 40 be the time I’m ordained as rabbi, but I’ll be almost 40 (bs”d) anyway. And I’ll be what I want to be.

guide my steps

I’m a mikveh guide!

Or as my friend Sarah likes to say: I’m a mivkeh lady!

This is not new information; in fact, I completed my training at Mayyim Hayyim at the beginning of May. But since I’ve hardly written in this space since the beginning of the year, I thought I would start to do some catching up.

mayyim hayyim nametag

it’s official!; photo by salem pearce via instagram

In the spring I participated in an eight-week course for new mikveh guides. The group was mostly middle-aged women, save one man, as well as Sarah and I and two other students. We were the ninth cohort of mikveh attendants trained since Mayyim Hayyim opened its doors 10 years ago. The training consisted of history and law of mikveh, most of which I already knew, logistics of facilitating immersions, and general education about the different reasons people might immerse. Mayyim Hayyim is a community mikveh that allows all Jews to immerse for just about any occasion, which makes it unique among most mikva’ot. Folks come to celebrate conversion, marriage, childbirth, gender transition, and cancer remission — as well as to heal from divorce, miscarriage, and sexual abuse, to name a few.

I have written about mikveh in general before in this space. I shared my last two pre-High Holiday immersion experiences, in the fall of 2012 and in the fall of 2013 (both at Mayyim Hayyim) as well as at least a little about my conversion immersion. I also wrote about a powerful play about mikveh I saw at the DCJCC a number of years ago.

As you might imagine, my experiences as an immersee have been quite moving. I was a little nervous about how it would feel to be on the other side, to witness immersions, and indeed, the curtain has been pulled back a little. I can still see the magic of Mayyim Hayyim, especially through the eyes of those who visit, but it’s hard to view as a refuge a place where I’m asked to do laundry. (Keeping the machines cleaning the constant accumulation of sheets and towels and robes and bath mats and wash cloths is part of my job now.) I was able to do my annual pre-holiday dunk last month, but I’ll admit that it felt less special than it had in years past. I did have a really wonderful experience facilitating the immersion of a friend who was preparing for a big life event, and I hope to be able to talk about that in this space soon.

park slope mikvah towel

embroidery on the towels at the park slope mikvah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

What I do want to share is my experience this summer in New York. I did a fair amount of reflection on the ritual of mikveh this summer for a number of reasons — one of which is that my friend Sarah facilitated a series of salon conversations about the practice of niddah as part of her work as a summer fellow with ImmerseNYC, another community mikveh.

Niddah is the term in Hebrew for a menstruating woman, with whom intercourse is forbidden; the metaphorical impurity of menstruation is expunged by immersion in the mikveh some days after the end of her cycle. It’s an ancient practice — still held by many Orthodox communities — most definitely informed by misogyny. However, there is a movement in more liberal Jewish circles to reclaim the practice. Though at first skeptical, I’ve come to believe more in that possibility.

So this summer I twice immersed at the Park Slope Mikvah, which I discovered by accident on a walk around my adopted neighborhood. I scheduled the appointments around my menstrual cycle, but mostly out of respect for the space, which caters to women who practice niddah. I was more interested in exploring a regular practice of mivkeh — and in experiencing a different mikveh.

With all due respect to Mayyim Hayyim, the Park Slope Mikvah is unparalleled in its facilities. It’s brand new (open for less than a year), and it feels like a spa: Beautifully appointed rooms with music and candles and huge bathtubs; embroidered, fluffy white towels, robes, and slippers; gorgeous, shimmering pools; and supplies in a gift-wrapped box, complete with preparation instructions on Park Slope Mikvah stationery. Even more welcoming than all of these creature comforts were the two mikveh ladies that witnessed my immersion.

The mikveh in Park Slope is a project of Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish outreach organization. So the folks associated with it are by profession welcoming. But I don’t present as a typical woman who practices niddah, and the guides still could not have been more kind and helpful. One mikveh lady in particular was effusive in her blessings. And the names of the preparation rooms reflected this expansive feeling: I prepared both times in the hilariously dubbed “Chamber of Chic Simplicity.”

park slope mikvah handwashing sink

park slope mikvah handwashing sink; photo by salem pearce

I don’t know how I would feel about restricting intimate contact with my partner for about half of each month, which is the traditional practice of niddah, but this summer I was struck by the effort it takes to go to the mikveh each month (and I only went two months in a row), and by the appeal that I’m guessing that visit has for many a busy woman. Having the time to take a bath — and being expected to take that time in careful preparation for immersion — seemed even to me, without children or partner, to be a decadent luxury. During my training this spring one of the instructors pointed out that for some women, the time they spend at the mikveh is the only time they will truly have to themselves all month. I feel like I understand the appeal of the mikveh a little more now.

To be sure, the heterocentric focus of the mikveh in Park Slope is procreation. Hence, for instance, the plaque above the ritual handwashing sink:

The unique eggshell shape of this vessel sink in both sculptured and inspirational . . . Just as an egg opens to reveal new life, the mikvah waters breathe new life into our most meaningful relationship. The mikvah has always been — and continues to be — a place of spiritual rebirth and renewal. a mitzvah that celebrates Jewish marriage and family.

As heavy-handed as it’s possible to read this — along with the meditation prayer for fertility that I was handed to read after immersion — I think the fact that the mikveh is clearly engaging in literal hiddur mitzvah (“beautification of the mitzvah”) speaks to the potential power of the use of the ritual for any reason.

One final note: As of this writing on 10/14/14, the D.C. Jewish community (of which I was once a part) is reeling from the news of the recent arrest of Kesher Israel Rabbi Barry Freundel on charges of voyeurism — specifically that there was he installed a hidden camera in the showers of the synagogue’s mikveh. While assuming Rabbi Freundel’s innocence until proven otherwise, I mention this as a way of understanding the vulnerability and intimacy inherent in this ritual.

10/15/14 update: Read Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s beautiful response to these allegations here.

the world is on fire

I lost it this morning while chanting Torah.

I volunteered to read the weekday portion, Emor, at the beginning of the semester, not realizing that this reading would coincide with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

On Monday and Thursday mornings, we read the first 10 to 20 verses of the weekly portion. Parshat Emor begins with special laws for priests and for the high priest in their temple service, specifically around ritual impurity. Midway through the reading, a verse states:

“When the daughter of priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father she defiles: she shall be burnt in the fire.”

sunset (the daily burning of the world); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

sunset (the daily burning of the world); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As repugnant as it is on any day to read a sacred text, with all the pomp and circumstance of a formal liturgical event, about burning a woman to death, it is unconscionable on a day when we remember the Holocaust. I started crying, and I had a hard time stopping.

I was a little embarrassed, especially since at least one person at the Torah with me didn’t understand what was going on. I think the majority of folks got it, though. (There’s also the complicated relationship that I have to the Holocaust as a convert, as well as my anxiety how others perceive my relationship to the Holocaust as a convert — but that’s another story.)

Mostly, though, I don’t know what to do with the fact that we’re told to do something to one of us that will later be a part of the mass extermination of us by others. It’s almost as if the Torah presages the Holocaust.

Complicating the day further is the fact that on Mondays I take a class on the liturgy of the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. The traditional understanding of these services is really hard to stomach in conjunction with the Holocaust. On Yom Kippur in particular we confess our sins and declare our hope for G-d’s forgiveness. On Yom HaShoah, it’s hard not to think that G-d owes us.

My professor acknowledged this difficulty when he began the class by citing Yitz Greenberg: No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.

I would add, or a burning woman.

the light gets in

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)

As I’ve mentioned several times in this space, my first year of rabbinical school was really difficult for me, for a number of reasons. For one, everything was new: We moved to a new city so that I could start a graduate program in an area I’d never done academic study before after being out of school for more than 10 years. Plus I was being asked to make myself vulnerable on a daily basis with people I didn’t know at all — and to think about some of the most profound questions that we ask ourselves as human beings. Then, add all of this to the fact that the people I was with eight hours a day (my first-year cohort) had a fair amount of trouble trusting each other and meshing as group.

I started seeing a therapist here in December of 2012, just a few months into my first year of school. I know it was a good idea in a general way — if I’m going to be in a pastoral role, I need to have dealt with my own issues so that I’m not holding my own pain while holding others’ — but what motivated me to seek help then was an explosive incident in class. My intense reaction to the discussion took me by surprise (and, if I’m being honest, embarrassed me, too).

I completely lucked out in my “search” for a therapist in the area: I visited just one woman, who had been recommended to me, and I felt like it was a good fit immediately. I’ve been seeing her ever since.

I’ve been in therapy on and off since college when I first started seeing someone in the university’s health services department. I didn’t go regularly until I lived in D.C. and I needed support for my volunteer work at the rape crisis center. I now go once a week, and I feel like I need every hour.

everything is broken (source: moshe giventhal)

everything is broken (source: moshe giventhal)

Sometimes it’s frustrating to think about how many years I’ve been working on my issues, for indeed, I am still dealing with a lot of the stuff that I first started talking about in college. There’s a part of me that wants to just be done with it and move on. But I also know that’s not really how it works. I do hope, however, that my need for help will someday not feel as urgent as it does now. Right now, I at times feel broken beyond repair. I wonder if I’ll ever feel whole, or anything like it.

There are definitely bright spots, though. I know how absolutely privileged I am to even be able to see a therapist, let alone be free to find a good fit and not have the choice be limited by insurance. (My insurance does cover part of the cost, but I’m reimbursed at the out-of-network provider rate, and paying for part of expensive is still expensive.) I also am beyond grateful to my husband, who also recognizes how important this is for me and has agreed to prioritize the expense. I am also fortunate to have been able to find medication that very effectively helps with my depression. Most of the time, I feel “normal” — or more accurately, I feel like myself. And that is a relief.

This is not to say, however, that I don’t have times when I feel depressed, when I can’t do much of anything. It doesn’t happen a lot, but when it does, I feel helpless. I have a hard time accessing my own strength and resources that I know theoretically that I have. (For a good illustration of how depression works, see these posts from Hyperbole and a Half: Adventures in Depression and Depression Part Two.) All I can do most of the time is wait for it to pass, which it usually does within a couple of days (which relatively short period of time I am extremely grateful for — though it doesn’t always feel “short”). I wake up one day feeling better, and I pick myself up and go back to my life.

I write this because I think sharing my story, my journey with mental illness, is an important part of destigmatizing it and destigmatizing seeking help for it. I write this for myself, too: I can’t always convince myself of the fact that my depression is not a moral failing on my part, even though I know intellectually that it is so. It’s chemical, and it’s genetic (several members of my family also have experience with depression). I continue to work on accepting the fact that I will probably struggle with this my whole life — and that I’ll be on medication for the rest of my life. And some days that feels more acceptable and manageable than others.

happy second birthday, NPITV!

No Power in the ‘Verse turns two today! I started the blog as I was applying to rabbinical school, and I am now a quarter of the way through school (or will be once the small matter of two finals and two papers is taken care of).

a gratuitous photo of my nephew, who also recently turned two, eating his first sufganiyah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a gratuitous photo of my nephew, who also recently turned two, eating his first sufganiyah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

The following are my three most popular posts from the past year (which are also the most popular posts to date):

1. “yesterday we learned that it’s okay to kill a black kid”: A painful reflection I wrote the morning after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin.

2. she who has a why: A tribute to my friend Elissa, who died this spring at the age of 29. May her memory be always for a blessing.

3. there are six matriarchs: (And you can own a shirt that says so!) A meditation on the ger (“stranger”) in Jewish tradition.

Thanks for reading — and for accompanying me on this journey!

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriachs: buy your Jewish feminist t-shirt today at www.therearesix.com

The t-shirt I mention in this post is available for purchase! All proceeds go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, a local organization that my husband and I think is doing really important work. Wear your Jewish feminist commitment with pride. To own your very own matriarchs t-shirt, go to www.therearesix.com.

In an odd confluence of events, I’ve had occasion recently to think a lot about ancestry.

First, my husband made me an awesome shirt. (It’s in the style of this “goddesses” shirt — at least this is the first instantiation that I knew about; one of my classmates said the meme was originally from a band.) My shirt lists the six Jewish matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah. You can buy one here, thanks to my husband, and all proceeds will go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

When my husband and I were talking about making the shirt, his idea included just the first four women, who are indeed traditionally considered “the matriarchs.” Abraham’s wife, Sarah, gave birth to Isaac, who married Rebecca, who had Jacob, who married Rachel and Leah. The latter two women gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin (Rachel) and Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun (Leah).

But Bilhah and Zilpah also gave birth to sons of Jacob whose lines would become four of the twelve tribes of Israel. The two were handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, respectively, given to the women by their father Laban on the occasion of their marriages to Jacob. Bilhah had Dan and Naphtali, while Zilpah had Gad and Asher. The tribes that these men and their brothers (and their nephews) founded ended up in Egypt as slaves to Pharoah, leading to the Exodus story that is foundational in Jewish history. If, in the logic of the Bible, patrilineal descent is what matters, then Bilhah and Zilpah deserve as much recognition as the traditional four matriarchs for their role in the creation of the Israelite people.

Of course, that’s a low bar. If we know little about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, we know even less about Bilhah and Zilpah. They are passed from Laban to his daughters, and then loaned out by them to Jacob. They are so considered property that it is Rachel and Leah who have the honor of naming Bilhah and Ziplah’s sons. So we’re told in Genesis 30:6, after Bilhah gives birth for the first time, “And Rachel said: ‘God has judged me, and has also heard my voice, and has given me a son.’ Therefore called she his name Dan.” Bilhah and Zilpah speak not a word in the Torah.

This issue of inclusion comes up most often in the amidah, the “standing” prayer and the most central one in Judaism. Said at every prayer service, the amidah begins with a section usually called the Avot (“Fathers”). It begins, “Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, G-d of our Fathers, G-d of Abraham, G-d of Jacob, and G-d of Isaac.” In progressive circles, one usually adds the Imahot (“Mothers”): “G-d of Sarah, G-d of Rebecca, G-d of Rachel, and G-d of Leah” — as well as adding a few other words at various places to make the prayer more inclusive.

As my friend and teacher Eli Herb says,

When Jews use the word “imahot” they mean Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. This comes from old traditions that say there are seven ancestors, namely those four women plus Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Many Jews appended the name of the “imahot” to ritual prayer as a feminist gesture. This gesture was remarkable in its time. However, as a convert, I have never been able to figure out how to include imahot authentically. This is for the very simple reason that there are NOT four matriarchs. There are six. The two that are left out are of questionable status as “part of the tribe” because they were slaves. I do not know how any self respecting feminist/progressive Jew can continue to omit two of the imahot. Yet the vast majority of the “progressive” Jewish world, including Hebrew College, can not seem to move past the discussion of how important it was to include “THE imahot” in the amidah. We are NOT including “THE imahot,” friends. Rather we are making a dramatic statement about how we still do not know how to truly include the imahot; we still actively silence women and strangers.

Most of the time at Hebrew College, at my synagogue, and at the Hebrew school where I teach, the prayer leader includes “the” imahot. (A few of my classmates don’t, and, frankly, it irks me.) If not all/none of the imahot are included, I make sure to say them to myself. (A husband of one of my classmates tells me that there is rabbinical precedent for recognizing the six matriarchs, in Bemidbar Rabbah and Esther Rabbah.)

This year I’m in a new tefila group, the so-called “Moshiach Minyan.” We explore the way prayer can be a forum for collective liberation and how it can sustain us in our work as activists. A recent exercise saw us rewriting the Avot section of the amidah. I found this task both daunting and exciting — and in an hour, I came up with a list of names of those who made it possible for me to be me.

Blessed are you, Lord, my G-d and G-d of my ancestors. (Ancestors? Antecedents. The ones who came before.) The G-d who created those who created the world I inhabit, who have accompanied me on my journey, and who allow me to exist as I am. The G-d of Southern Baptists; the G-d of Hardy; the G-d of Homer and Socrates; the G-d of Virgil and Ovid; the G-d of the Brontes and Eliot; the G-d of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekov, Bulgakov, and Akhmatova; the G-d of Wells-Barnett, Lorde, Rich, Sanger, and Doe.

We shared our writing with each other, and almost everyone wrote about some aspect of their inheritance, whether from parents loving or harsh, from civil rights pioneers, or from past experiences. Mine reads like a timeline of my intellectual development, and I’m not totally sure that’s what I am seeking when I say the avot and imahot section of the amidah.

Like Eli, I feel conflicted when saying this portion of the amidah. As a convert, these nine ancestors absolutely are my ancestors. And they’re not. I still feel a tiny twinge when I’m called up to the Torah and I give my Hebrew name as “Rachel Tzippora bat Avraham v’Sarah.” (“Bat/ben Avraham v’Sarah” is the traditional formula for converts, whose parents generally don’t have Hebrew names.) I don’t love being publicly marked as a convert (the only place in Jewish ritual where that happens), and I feel it’s a little disrespectful to my actual parents.

And I can feel even worse when my ancestry is questioned. I volunteer once-a-month at a nearby senior living facility, leading a short Shabbat morning service. The first time I was there, I was talking to several of the residents after the service, and one of them asked me about school and what I was studying. She then exclaimed, “You don’t look Jewish at all! You could be a little Irish girl!” And then she kept repeating it. As I’ve written before, I usually pass pretty easily, so it’s always a bit jarring when I don’t. I didn’t take the bait (if bait it was — I’m never quite sure what people want to hear when they say things like that). I just shrugged and smiled.

The issue came up again recently in an “Exploring Jewish Diversity” workshop that I took through the Boston Workman’s Circle. The class was billed as a conversation about how cultural heritage, class, race, and privilege inform Jewish identity. In the States, Jews are largely assumed to be white and Ashkenazi; Jews of color and of other cultural heritages are often ignored. We were given a list of Ashkenazi privilege to examine. Many of them describe me — and some absolutely do not. My friend who attended the workshop with me asked me if I considered myself Ashkenaz. Similarly to my feelings about the avot and imahot, I absolutely do — and yet am not fully. I learned to be Jewish in and I now inhabit an Ashkenazi Jewish world. It is my cultural heritage, one that I chose (if not that thoughtfully). But, for instance, I am obviously not at risk for genetic disorders that are prevalent in this population. And I’m still occasionally questioned about whether I’m “really” Jewish.

prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive

I gave (a modified version of) this to my “Theology of Jewish Prayer” class. The assignment was to “present a prayer theology that differs from your own, making an effort to highlight its strong points; then present a prayer theology congenial with your personal views, highlighting a difficulty or challenge it poses.”

=============

This semester I am taking an online class called “Spirituality and Social Justice,” which focuses on the philosophies and theologies of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two theologies of prayer that I want to present today both come from Rabbi Heschel: One I find difficult, and the other, I find compelling.

In The Insecurity of Freedom Heschel writes about prayer as a discipline. Alluding to Buber, Heschel argues,

To worship G-d means to forget the self, an extremely difficult, though possible, act. What takes place in a moment of prayer may be described as a shift at the center of living – from self-consciousness to self-surrender. This implies, I believe, an important indication of the nature of man. Prayer begins as an “it-He” relationship. . . . In prayer, the “I” becomes an “it.” This is the discovery: what is an “I” to me, first of all and essentially, and “it” to G-d. If it is G-d’s mercy that lends eternity to a speck of being which is usually described as a self, then prayer begins as a moment of living as an “it” in the presence of G-d. The closer to the presence of Him, the more obvious becomes the absurdity of the “I.”

For Heschel, then, prayer requires extreme humility and self-abnegation. Our complete submission to the divine is what allows us to even draw close to G-d, let alone worship G-d. This involves a recognition of our own finiteness, undeservedness, and absurdity; we denigrate ourselves “to become worthy to be remembered by G-d,” as Heschel writes a few paragraphs later. He continues, “Thus the purpose of prayer is to be brought to G-d’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by Him. In other words, the task of man is not to know G-d but to be known to G-d.”

As I read this text, I had an immediate and strong reaction to this theology (not to mention the gendered language for G-d and for people). Over Shabbat lunch some weeks ago, I explained my objections to several classmates of mine, and one of them was quite surprised. After years of resistance and subsequent spiritual work, he explained, he had found connection to the divine in this surrender, in the recognition of his unworthiness. This philosophy has much to recommend it to someone who has been able to believe in the possibility of control over his life. I think it is significant that my interlocutor was a straight, cisgendered, able-bodied white man.

abraham joshua heschel

abraham joshua heschel

To me, Heschel’s writing here cries out for a feminist analysis. I agree with the assumption that Heschel seems to be making: that seeking communion with the divine should not feel quotidian. Being in the presence of G-d should absolutely feel different than other moments of our lives might. What “different” is, however, depends on who you are.

Heschel survived horrors as a Jew in Europe in the 1930s, and he lost much of his immediate family in the Holocaust. I don’t want to leave that unacknowledged. And, he also benefited from much privilege accorded him here in the United States, through his skin color, his gender, his sexual orientation, his education, his able-bodiedness. For those similar to him, daily experience might be able to be described as affirming. Safe. Comfortable. It is understandable why, then, it might be desirable for prayer, for immersion in the divine, to be an uncomfortable and challenging experience. A denial of the self that is otherwise universally affirmed. A submission to a force with which one otherwise feels in harmony.

I pray, in part, because I feel empowered and affirmed and worthy and safe when I am in the presence of the divine. G-d has already remembered me, brought me to G-d’s attention, is desirous of listening to me and of understanding me. I don’t have to work to make that happen; G-d meets me where I am. So doing means, for me, that G-d acknowledges the brokenness of my experience. The G-d of my prayer is one whom I, in the words of Tamara Cohen, “hold . . . responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.”

Heschel actually acknowledges something similar to this in his work on prophetic consciousness. Elsewhere he says that the job of the prophet is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And if the prophet is the messenger of G-d, it stands to reason that his actions might be a reflection of G-d’s role. I wonder whether Heschel himself held contradictory theologies of prayer. I think he might: It’s hard for me to understand how he could connect with a theology that objectifies human beings.

Indeed, I find deeply moving a seemingly quite different part of his theology: his thought about the obligations that we have to each other as prerequisites for prayer. A journalist once asked him why he had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. “I am here because I cannot pray,” he replied. “What do you mean, you can’t pray so you come to an anti-war demonstration?” Said Heschel: “Whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.”

Heschel was an outspoken opponent both of the Vietnam War and of the racism he saw manifest in the segregationist laws of the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. In his June 16, 1963, telegram to President Kennedy in advance of a meeting of religious leaders at the White House, Heschel said, “We forfeit the right to worship G-d as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes.” In Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, he wrote, “To speak about G-d and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” For Heschel then, we cannot be in any relationship with G-d when we are not in right relationship with our fellow human beings. This latter relationship also involves G-d: “The image of G-d is either in every man or in no man . . . “ he wrote in The Insecurity of Freedom. If we’re not able to see G-d in others, how can we see our way to G-d?

In the great Talmudic tradition, Heschel’s statements are extreme. Just as one might rightly be mystified (as I am) by R. Eleazar’s claim that “One who prays behind his rebbe, and one who greets his rebbe, and one who returns a greeting to his rebbe, and one who divides his rebbe’s yeshiva, and one who says something which he has not heard from his rebbe causes the shekhinah (divine presence) to depart from Israel” (Berakhot 27b), so too might Heschel’s claim be perplexing. We’re never completely right with our community: I only called Sen. Warren’s office once to urge her to vote in favor of a bill that could close Guantanamo – and the phone just rang and rang. I decided I had too much homework to attend the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony last Sunday. I provoked a fight with my husband. I used ableist language. As I said earlier, my prayer is comforting: I need connection to G-d precisely when I am feeling most un-human.

But Heschel’s commitment to the primacy of interpersonal relationships speaks to me and calls me to action. It puts moral obligations ahead of religious obligations, ha’olam ha’zeh before ha’olam ha’bah, the communal antecedent to the personal. I also love the global nature of Heschel’s community: besides the war in Vietnam – in which he was concerned primarily about native, civilian casualties – he also did much work on the issue of Soviet Jewry. Foreign, domestic, Jew, Gentile – Heschel tried to see the image of G-d in all. Again, The Insecurity of Freedom: “All of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; when one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.” This view also highlights the enormity of what is at stake: We human beings have always been in special relationship with G-d, as b’tzelem elohim. We cannot come before G-d with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings.

This theology also expands for me the definition of prayer. In so prioritizing our community, we see the world as G-d does, and we become partners with G-d in alleviating the agony of human beings. Upon the occasion of his marching with Dr. King in Selma, Ala., Heschel famously said that he “felt like his legs were praying.” Our work on behalf of others is sacred. G-d-like. And if activism is prayer, it can go the other way, too. Prayer is activism – as Heschel well noted when he said (in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity) that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive . . . Prayer is our greatest privilege. To pray is to stake our very existence, our right to live, on the truth and on the supreme importance of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of G-d.” And, I think, in the lives of others, too.

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