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Now, an artist has posthumously given Sendak the wedding he never had. Gay marriage was legalized in Pennsylvania in fall 2015.

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Maurice Sendak lived with his partner psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn for 50 years, though he never told his parents that they were a couple. Artist Ella German chose to posthumously give them the wedding they never had. What a lovely tribute to man who still makes children (and their parents) happy!

Born to Jewish-Polish parents, Maurice’s childhood was affected by the death of many of his family members during the Holocaust. Besides Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak also wrote works such as In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There.

Sendak described his childhood as a “terrible situation” due to the death of members of his extended family, which exposed him at a young age to the concept of mortality. His love of books began when, as a child, he developed health problems and was confined to his bed. He decided to become an illustrator after watching Walt Disney‘s film Fantasia at the age of 12. He spent much of the 1950s illustrating children’s books written by others before beginning to write his own stories.

Sendak mentioned in a September 2008 article in The New York Times that he was gay and had lived with his partner, psychoanalyst Dr. Eugene Glynn, for 50 years before Glynn’s death in May 2007. Revealing that he never told his parents, he said, “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”[17]

Sendak’s relationship with Glynn had been mentioned by other writers before and Glynn’s 2007 death notice had identified Sendak as his “partner of 50 years.” After his partner’s death, Sendak donated $1 million to the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in memory of Glynn who had treated young people there.

Sendak was an atheist. In a 2011 interview, he stated that he did not believe in God and explained that he felt that religion, and belief in God, “must have made life much easier [for some religious friends of his]. It’s harder for us nonbelievers,” he said.

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Rachel and Jacob meet at the well.

Rachel and Jacob meet at the well.

When Rachel met Jacob at the edge of the well,
in that moment of their salty union,
did she divine that like the well,
there would now be no bottom to her pain?
The love.
The hate.
The separation each fortnight like the shearing of a lamb? The sons that would grasp and clamp in terror as they slid down her womb, leaving her gait forever off-kilter; like a clay plate that the Cosmic Potter could never again make lie flat.

Oh Potter of my youth; I think you forgot to warn me about the pain.
Remember? That last time we were together in the back seat of that yellow Buick LeSabre, turned brown by all those years of dangling children and muddy soccer cleats? That was the last time my soul still imagined it knew where to find you.

But your salty lips, too, stayed silent. Of course you could not have warned me. Losing my dream of you was the last act, and then, the grand entrance, to adulthood.

The heart is weak.
It can lose but one sweet fantasy at a time,
lest it break completely.

 

+ genesis 29

 

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The following poem, called “Miriam’s Song,” was written by contemporary American poet named Eleanor Wilner. Born in Ohio in 1937, Eleanor was on the faculty of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lived part of her life in Philadelphia. It strikes me as a beautiful addendum to my previous post, on women’s role in the Exodus.

Miriam’s Song by Eleanor Wilner

Death to the first born sons, always —
The first fruits to the gods of men.
She had not meant it so, standing in the reeds,
back then, the current tugging at her skirt
like hands, she had only meant to save
her little brother, Moses, red-faced with rage
when he was given
to the river. The long curve of the Nile
would keep their line, the promised land
around the bend. Years later
when the gray angel, like the smoke trail
of a dying comet, passed by their houses
with blood smeared over doorways, Miriam,
her head hot in her hands, wept
as the city swelled
with the wail of Egypt’s women.
Then she straightened up, slowly plaited
her hair and wound it tight around her head,
drew her long white cloak with its deep blue
threads
around her, went out to watch the river
where Osiris, in his golden funeral barge, floated by forever …
as if in offering, she placed a basket on the river,
this time an empty one, without the precious
cargo
of tomorrow. She watched it drift a little from the shore.
She threw one small stone in it,
then another, and another, til its weight
was too much for the water and it slowly turned
and sank. She watched the Nile gape and
shudder,
then heal its own green skin. She went
to join the others, to leave one ruler
for another, one Egypt for the next.
Some nights you still can see her, by some river
where the willows hang, listening to the heavy
tread
of armies, whose sons once hidden dark
in baskets, and in their mind she sees her sister,
the black-eyed Pharaoh’s daughter, lift the baby
like a gift from the brown flood waters
and take him home to save him, such  pretty
boy and so disarming, as his dimpled hands
reach up, his mouth already open
for the breast.

To hear an NPR podcast about Exodus and Wilner’s poem “Miriam’s Song,” click here! This interview first aired On Being in 2005 and includes an interview with Aviva Zornberg. Zornberg is a scholar of Torah and rabbinic literature, and author of several books including The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus.

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This year, I had the honor and pleasure of delivering the following d’var Torah for a women’s seder hosted by the Women of Reform Judaism at Beth David Congregation of Philadelphia. I was asked to speak for about 5 minutes on the topic of women in the Exodus story. This is what I shared:

Original artwork for sale at the Reiss Gallery in Greenwood Village, Co. http://rreissgallery.com/mishory.html

Death. Water. Rebirth.

Death. Water. Rebirth.

This is the pattern we see in the famous story of the Exodus. Each is a stepping stone in the great circle of life.

First we have the Pharaoh of Egypt, a powerful yet fearful man who has grown paranoid that the population of his Hebrew slaves is becoming too great, and might one day overpower him. So, he issues a decree that all firstborn sons be killed. Death.

A loving sister named Miriam takes her baby brother and releases him to the fates of a raging river, in the hopes he will survive. Water.

He does survive. And it is Moses’s survival that will make possible the transformation of the Hebrew slaves into the Israelite people — a free people on their own land. Rebirth.

But even within this story’s mega-journey from Death, Water, to Rebirth, we also witness smaller inner-journeys that mimic this same pattern. The Exodus story begins with God deciding that enough is enough; he will no longer tolerate Pharaoh’s cruelty against his people. Through Moses, God sends 10 plagues. The plagues culminate, each more horrible than the last, until the final plague. Death to the Egyptians! But it not just death to firstborn sons. (You might have thought this. This is how it is depicted in the famous Charlton Heston movie about the Exodus.) But the movie was wrong! That is not what the texts say. The Torah says that the edict of death was for the firstborn of all the people and even of all the animals in the Egyptian kingdom.

Did you know? Pharaoh’s daughter was a first-born child. The woman who plucked Moses from the reeds and raised him as her own son, she was destined to perish in the 10th plague.

But, she did not perish. P’sikta D’rav Kahana 7:7 — a 5th century rabbinic text — tells us that Moses prayed for his adoptive mother. The text gives her the name of Bithiah. Moses’s prayer invoked a passage from Proverbs 31:18 about a “woman of valor.” According to this passage, the lamp of a woman of valor never goes out at night. P’sikta D’rav Kahana understands this to be a metaphysical reference to Pharaoh’s daughter, whose soul was not extinguished on that terrible night.

Color pencil drawing inspired by the songs of Debbie Friedman. For sale at Soulworks Studio. http://www.soulworksstudio.com/SongMandalas.en.html

Color pencil drawing inspired by the songs of Debbie Friedman. For sale at Soulworks Studio. http://www.soulworksstudio.com/SongMandalas.en.html

But, let us return to our circle.

We have Death — again — of innocents, of children. Just as Pharaoh decreed, so decrees the Hebrew god.

With the plague of death unleashed upon his empire, the exhausted Pharaoh finally relents and let’s his people go. So eager is he to see the Hebrews leave, Midrash tells us, that he leaves all of the slain first-born of his kingdom, unburied, broiling, sweltering, left to rot where they had died. He did this not out of callous indifference, but rather because he ordered the Egyptians to help the Israelites pack up their belongings and get out — lest there by any further delay in their departure.

After Death comes Water. The Israelites collect their sheep and their ox, their blankets, and their bread — which had not had not even had time to rise — and they flee for the relative safety of the desert. Eventually, they arrive on the shores of another mighty river. No longer the River Nile, they are now on the banks of the Sea of Reeds.

But, the story tells us, Pharaoh had a change of heart. He let the people go — but then he sent the Egyptian armies out after them. As well-armed chariots and soldiers were advancing upon Moses’s bedraggled bunch, the waters of the great river miraculously part, enabling the entire Hebrew people to walk through its waters. Just as the last of them has cleared the way, the waters come crashing back down, drowning every last one of Pharaoh’s men. Pharaoh is the only survivor, and he left to hear the death cries of his entire kingdom.

The Israelites break out into song, celebrating their deliverance. It is one of the most famous poems in the Bible, known as the Song of the Sea. And it is here, at this moment of Rebirth, that we see Moses’s sister Miriam again taking center stage.

Death, Water, Rebirth. Miriam has been a major actor in every step of this circle of life and redemption.

Shared on Flickr.com. If you know the artist, please email me!

Shared on Flickr.com. If you know the artist, please email me!

***

What I am about to tell you is a secret. It’s a secret because it isn’t told in the Torah, or in the Maxwell House hagaddah you grew up with, and is probably not found in many of the other dreadful hagaddot you have seen or read in your life. They were all written by men, for men, about men.

The Torah’s Song of the Sea begins at Exodus 15:1 and says this: “Az yashir Moshe u’bnai Israel et Hashira Ha-zot l’Adonai, v’yom’ru …” In other words: “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to Adonai, saying,…”  What follows is a victory poem cheering the Hebrews’ deliverance over Egypt, and hailing God as the ultimate warrior.

What the poem doesn’t tell us, but what modern-day scholars know, is that it was usually the women in a society who create the victory songs of war, not the men. The men are the ones off fighting the battle. It is the women, nervously waiting back home, who craft the melodies and the words that impassion this style of poetry. Victory songs belong to a genre of literature composed by women and used to greet victorious troops after battle.

Indeed, there is at least one ancient Jewish text we have found that gives a tantalizing hint to this historical fact. One ancient scroll titles the Song of the Sea as “Miriam’s Song.”

It was probably a mistake. I can so image in the poor schlub — the professional scribe — who may have lost his job over it.

But, maybe not. Maybe, this “mistake” was intentional after all. Maybe what this text reveals is a tantalizing, almost maddening clue that somewhere deep in our collective subconscious, in the verbal traditions of our people, we knew all along that it was Miriam — and not Moses — who led the people in song after the redemption.

Death. Water and Rebirth. It turns out that the Exodus story begin and ends with a woman. It began, and ended, with Miriam.

Image shared on Flickr by tbabchak.

This is why, today, more than 1,500 years after the Passover seder tradition evolved in Palestine and Eastern Europe, we women gather to have what we call a “women’s seder.” Because it is here, with the love of sisters, mothers, and friends, that we may relish the joy in sharing the rest of the story.

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According to Lev. 23:15, Jews are obligated to count the days from Passover to Shavu’ot. This period is known as Counting the Omer. In the days of the Temple, an ‘omer’ of barley was cut down and brought to the priests as an offering. The grain offering was called an ‘omer’ — thus the name of this period.

What does it mean to count the Omer in this day and age? I confess, it’s a question I wrestle with every spring. When I first began attempting to count the Omer a few years ago, I had a lot of fun with the tradition simply because it was something new. It gave me a chance to learn a new Hebrew blessing, and it was a vehicle for better learning the Hebrew numbering system! (To see a transliteration of each day’s Omer recitation, check out this handy site on the OU.)

Once the newness wore off though, I was back wondering what it all means. What can I walk away with from this exercise?

The “traditional” answer to this question is that the counting is intended to remind us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, and Shavu’ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. It is supposed to remind us that the redemption from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah. But, as someone who cannot accept this “traditional” meaning of the holiday of Shavuot (and I say “traditional” in quotes because the oldest meaning of the holiday of Shavu’ot was as an agricultural pilgrimage festival — not the day Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai), this explanation for the Omer isn’t particularly meaningful.

What I have found meaningful instead, however, is using the Omer as an opportunity for inner reflection. A variety of writers have come out in recent years offering interpretations of the kabbalistic (mystical) interpretation of the Omer.

In kabbalah, each week of the Omer we move through one of the seven lower sefirot (emanations of God that are associated with a particular divine quality.) So, for example, we would focus the first week on the sephira of chesed (lovingkindness). Week two would be the sephira of gevurah (strength). This blog post by the New York Jewish Culture Examiner offers a helpful guide. The question becomes, in what ways do we experience or manifest the holy qualities of lovingkindness or strength in our day-to-day life? In what ways can we strive to experience or embody these manifestations of holiness?

One book on this topic is Counting the Omer, a Kabbalistic Meditation Guide by Min Kantrowitz.

Another beautiful practice you might consider adopting is to finish your daily Omer recitation by singing Ana B’Koach. On neohasid.org, you can find several recordings of this traditional and haunting melody.

*****

Addendum: In response to Ahuvah’s recommendation of Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s counting the Omer book, I went on an online hunt in search of it. I couldn’t find it for purchase anywhere, but it is available as a free PDF download from his website here: http://web.mac.com/rabbirami/Rabbi_Rami/Read_files/Omer%20Journal.pdf

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