Blessed be Our Porch

I reviewed this blog with the intention of writing more op-eds and rants and occasional liturgy and divrei Torah but instead I have written another poem. Is this a trend? Your guess is as good as mine. Here is poem about our porch and about quarantine with tiny nods to liturgy. Thanks to Casper ter Kuile, Vanessa Zoltan and Ariana Nedelman for the inspiration to bless things.

PorchAuroraMendelsohn2Blessed be Our Porch

My husband used to be the first to snag the newspaper to devour with his breakfast.
Now the papers huddle in piles by the door, thin and shunned.

I hear my father’s footfalls as he drops off some wine.
He does not enter.

In the mailbox is handwritten letter from a friend.

Bored children lie in wait for cardboard packages
and pounce with glee.

The doorbell rings.
We wait.
We retrieve our retaurant food from the porch.
As we scurry back inside we glimpse the back of the driver walking away.

Blessed be what arrives.
Blessed be the deliverers.

At dusk my middle daughter plays guitar while we sing with our neighbors.
Each of us from our own porch.

Dear friends sit on plastic chairs on the ground below.
A submerged yearning rises.
Their words float up.
We catch them and hold them close.

On the porch my youngest child climbs the rails.
She curls up on a cushion in the sun.

Blessed be this liminal refuge,
outside, but safe.

For its first hundred years other families sat on this porch.
We have known it for twelve years and have never seen a bird’s nest here.
Now in the quiet, a robin builds.
Blessed be his hope.

From this threshold I cast my incantations to those who prepare to exit:
Wear a mask!
Change your shoes!
Fear others!

My oldest daughter sets off for her weekly trip to the supermarket
With a detailed list and anxious eyes.

I take a deep breath as I come back from a walk,
before slowly, carefully opening the front door.

Blessed be our going
and blessed be our returning
In health
And in peace.
Now and always.

Blessed be this shelter of peace.
Blessed be our porch.

— Aurora Mendelsohn

To My Seder Guests: poem for a quarantined seder

To My Seder Guests 
Next year we will run out of Passover mixing bowls from cooking for crowds, so we’ll just keep rewashing them.

Someone will ask us if they can join us two days before the seder and we’ll say yes.
There will be a mountain of coats.

Next year we will get that old table out of the garage and clean it off and make it fit in our awkwardly re-arranged living room to make space for you all.
We’ll forget who we asked to bring the extra folding chairs so we’ll scramble with a few wheely desk chairs.

We’ll run around the table during the fun songs.
It will be so loud.
I’ll have to settle you all down to begin the next part.

Next year you will taste the produce of my garden, our local maror.
Next year the table will groan.

You will all jump in with your comments and talk at all once
and I will not moderate, but sit back with delight.
Our elaborations on the story will be worthy of praise.

It will smell like fresh asparagus and flowers
And artificially flavoured fruit slice candies.
and red wine.

Next year we’ll find more typos in our homemade family Haggadah.
And no one’s favourites will be skipped.

Our house will ring with your song.
Then, we’ll laugh at inside jokes in the kitchen as we clear up together.

Next year it will be Jerusalem here for an evening again.
I will greet each of you like Miriam and like Elijah
And I will hold you and kiss you as you enter and as you go.

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Notes: This poem makes several references to the Passover Haggadah and prayers.

  • “Our elaborations on the story will be worthy of praise” refers to the line at the start of the storytelling in the Haggadah that says, “Whoever expands upon the story of the Exodus from Egypt is worthy of praise.”
  • “Taste the produce of my garden” is a reference to the fourth cup of wine where give thanks for “the produce of the field”.
  • “Next year it will be Jerusalem here” is a reference to the traditional seder ending, “Next year in Jerusalem”.
  • “Like Miriam and like Elijah” is a reference to the prophet Elijah who is a traditionally invited to the seder. Many modern seders invite the prophet Miriam as well.
  • “As you enter and as you go” is a reference to the Sh’ma.

Indigenous Land Acknowledgement: A Jewish Version

In Canada, as part of a path of Reconciliation with the First Nations people for the harm caused to them, many gatherings open with an acknowledgement that the land where we are holding our meeting, synagogue service or conference on belonged to First Nations people. Here is a version I wrote (see notes for full attributions of component parts) that evokes Jewish intention, Jewish texts and speaks to our experience as both an oppressed people and a people who currently benefit from the effects of colonialism in our country. 

I will be using it at my seder this year.

Let me know what you think.

 

The Acknowledgement can be downloaded as a pdf here:

Land acknowledgement

Full text is available at :

Open Siddur Project -Land Acknowledgement

All-of-a-Kind Family and the quarentined Passover 

My friend Paula Lewis reminded me of  just how educational All-of-a-Kind-Family by Sydney Taylor was.

Remember that time in All-of-Kind-Family when the sisters got scarlet fever and the family was quarantined and their only contact with others was when relatives dropped off food by the window or Charlie left packages of toys… and they had to have the Seder alone?

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Why Warren’s loss feels so personal to me

NYT

Cross-posted at daily Kos

It was hard to have Hilary Clinton, way more qualified, way more knowledgeable, way more decent, way more insert-pretty-much-any-adjective-you-would-want-in-a-president-here lose to Trump.

It is harder still to have Elizabeth Warren, who had almost none of whatever flaws you might ascribe to Clinton, lose.

It is not just that women have lost to men. It is that the women were more capable and had better policy.

I feel this loss as a feminist.

But I also I feel the loss as a person who appreciates deep and comprehensive thought. It hurts that my way of looking at the world is not one that is valued by others. It scares me too.

But especially I feel the loss as someone who identifies as both, as a smart woman. Because that is still something people find not “likeable” or “electable”. And that is hard to take.

However, I understand that that’s how democracy has to work.

I am hoping this post can be just a small moment to hold that hurt before we move on to the main task ahead.

Shabbat Shira-Beshalach Dvar Torah: A Sermon on the Songs of Redemption

I gave this dvar Torah on Feb. 8, 2020 at the Narayever. After a few years’ absence for family health reasons I am thinking of relaunching this blog. If this goes well, I will post the other two divrei Torah I have written over the past 15 years (after kids and after the period where I would just wing it with notes on index cards). I apologize for the odd formatting. Everything changed on WordPress in the years I was away.

In this week’s parsha the Israelite slaves are freed from Egypt, as they flee the Egyptians chase them in a dramatic scene (you have all seen the movie) and attempt to trap them at the Red Sea. Moses splits the sea, they walk through the dry land, and the Egyptians drown.

After this the Israelites rejoice by singing two songs: the Song of the Sea and the Song of Miriam. Because of this, today is known as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song. In keeping with the theme, I am going to explore these songs and I will to turn to popular song as well as more traditional commentary.

First, we have Song of the Sea led by Moses which starts:

.אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לַיהוָה, וַיֹּאמְרו   לֵאמֹר  אָשִׁירָה לַיהוָהכִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה  סוּס  וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם

Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to God; they said I will sing to God, the highly exalted: the horse and his rider were thrown into the sea.

Exodus 15:1

Then we have The Song of Miriam:

.וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ; וַתֵּצֶאןָ  כָל-הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ, בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת

.וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם:  שִׁירוּ לַיהוָה כִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם

Miriam the prophet, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. Miriam sang to them: Sing to God, the highly exalted: the horse and his rider were thrown into the sea.

Exodus 15:20-21

In both cases, the leader sang and everyone responded.

How do we know everyone sang? For the Song of the Sea it says Moses and the Children of Israel sang. The song of Miriam is usually described as something only the women sang in response to Miriam. However, a closer reading of the text by Prof. Wilda Gafney, an episcopal priest and bible scholar indicates that everyone sang this song as well even if only the women danced with timbrels.

Gafney notes that Miriam says Sing to God. Shiru the word sing, is in the imperative form of the verb in Hebrew.  Yes, Hebrew has a verb conjugation form dedicated to telling people what to do. Make of that what you will. In Hebrew, until recently, the male plural was used for both all-male and mixed groups,  while a female-only group had its own special plural. The imperative form for males or a mixed group is Shiru. For a group of women only, the word would have been Shirena. Since Miriam says Shiru we know everyone sang.

So now that we know that everyone sang, both times, we can ask a more compelling question. Where did they get those timbrels?

These are slaves with very few possessions leaving in a rush (remember the dough didn’t even have time to rise) and they are able to whip out timbrels.  So, how did they have timbrels?

Rashi also wondered about this. He quotes Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmal saying that the women were so confident that there would be redemption that they took timbrels out of Egypt.

Or as Prof. Lori Lefkovitz puts it, “Faith is packing your drum.”

My next question is: How did they know the words?

They have just gone through the death-defying escape scene and then they start singing. There is no mention of Moses writing the songs on a tablet or teaching them the song. That seems like a nutty, kind of nerdy question, right? So, you know the rabbis of the Talmud (Sotah 30b-31a) asked it too.

Rabbi Akiva taught that Moses sang the entire song, and the Israelites repeated after him with the leading phrase of each verse, repeating it after each verse, like a mini-chorus.

Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Yosi  said that Moses sang a phrase and the Israelites responded after him by repeating the phrase. This technique, where you feed people the next line of a song they don’t know the words of, so that a group can all sing together, especially when done line by line, quickly on the off-beat, is know in my house as “being Pete”.

This is because folk singer Pete Seeger was famous for using this technique to facilitate group singing.

As an aside, I guess my family should call this technique “being Moses” now, since the rabbis say Moses invented it.

Pete Seeger believed in the power of communal, singing and thought that it creates holiness. He said :

No one can prove a damn thing, but I think that singing together gives people some kind of a holy feeling. And it can happen whether they’re atheists, or whoever. You feel like, ‘Gee, we’re all together.’ 

New York Times, Feb. 10, 2008

Which is kind of what the Tosefta has to say about how everyone knew the words. The Tosefta says that the spirit of God came over them so they could sing together.

I have a theory of how everyone knew the words. Before I get to why that, I want to revisit what they are celebrating with the song.

They are celebrating the end of 400 years of slavery, which means generations of oppression. Even if they are free, their oppression isn’t instantly erased. There is a lot of intergenerational trauma, that will not end with their liberation – as we see in the Torah multiple times. They are fearful and anxious. They are constantly complaining to Moses. They don’t trust Moses or God to provide for them. They panic when their leader, Moses, is absent and quickly make a substitute leader, the golden calf.  When the spies return from the land of Israel, they refuse to believe good news about their future. These are all common and understandable reactions to trauma and oppression.

This type of intergenerational trauma is sadly relevant to us today. We are coming to realize that the trauma of the Holocaust didn’t end with liberation, or the state of Israel. There are second and third generation reverberations on an individual level and trauma for us as a people.  It is hard to be a good parent for example when you own parent was a slave or victim of the Holocaust. Similarly, the suffering of American slavery didn’t end with emancipation or civil rights. Nor did the pain of first nations people end with an apology or the closing of Residential schools.

But along with intergenerational trauma, I think there is also intergenerational hope and faith.

Melissa Wood Bartholomew, is a Christian minister, graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and racial justice facilitator is also the great-great granddaughter of slaves, Susan and Moses. Recently she visited the plantation where her ancestors were enslaved and tried to imagine what enabled them to not just survive, but to pass on a kind of protection that reached her grandfather. Though her grandfather grew up without electricity or running water, not far from where his grandparents had been enslaved, he became a pastor, a follower of Dr. Martin Luther King, a civil rights leader and a person who created hope.

She writes:

My grandfather describes how as a little boy he would sit at grandma Susan’s knee as she rocked in her rocker and joyfully sang spirituals. She would share memories of her childhood enslaved, forced to labor ten to twelve hours a day picking soybeans and corn. Despite being enslaved most of her life and still living in the midst of struggle, she kept a song in her heart. She proudly described her dear Moses as the “light of her life”.

Just as the women brought their own drums because they had faith that they would be saved, I believe the Israelites knew the words of the song of redemption because they wrote it and sang it and practiced it.  

Prof. James Kugel, while arguing a completely other point, raises evidence that the song of the Sea was not spontaneously invented at the Exodus. He notes that it does not mention the splitting of the sea, or the crossing on dry land but it does mention the Egyptians sinking like lead which doesn’t make sense if they were standing on the dry land when the sea closed over them.

All of Kugel’s points are consistent with an imagined or hoped-for redemption song written in advance, where the exact details of the redemption are not yet known.  I suggest that the Israelites wrote this song because they knew they or their children or their children’s children would be saved.  Indeed, songs of redemption more meaningful if we already know the words, if the songs connect us to our past and to people who prepared us for this moment.

As Lin Manuel Miranda writes:

Legacy. What is a legacy?

It is planning a garden you will never see.

I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.

Hamilton, The World was Widen Enough,  (Thanks R.C.)

If we write the songs of joy and redemption and pass them on, it also enables us to be present, in some way, at redemptions that come in the future, after us. We may not be there physically, but at that joyous moment they will be singing our song.