Minyan: Daily faith and poetry


They come together to bury their father

in the cave where Sarah's body lies.

(No one imagines the vaulted church

turned mosque with painted ceilings

or the synagog, or metal detectors

to keep armed men from getting through.)

Isaac and Ishmael wash him with water

and sprinkle sand on his eyelids

so his visions of the world to come

will derive from the land he loves. ..."

-- Rachel Barenblat


Rachel Barenblat of Lanesborough keeps a blog as The Velveteen Rabbi. (She is well and widely read: Time magazine named hers one of their top 25 blogs in 2008).

On Sunday, after more than five years of study, she will be ordained.

And she will celebrate a second triumph. Phonecia Publishing, an independent press in Montreal, will release a book of her poetry: "70 Faces."

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She calls these her Torah poems. The books of the Torah, the Hebrew holy texts, follow the cycle of the year. In 2008 and 2009, Rachel wrote one poem each week reflecting on the the portion of Torah she was studying.

I read many of these poems as she posted them on her blog.

Reading them felt like keeping still to pray on the frosted boards of a deck on a crisp morning. They have that quiet concentration: I can imagine standing, wrapped in a woolen shawl, looking out across the valley.

Because she wrote them in a regular rhythm, they carry that rhythm from one to the next.

They take time time to think about daily things -- a bottle of milk, talismans on a desk -- and ongoing things -- the names of animals, the urge to make -- and lifelong things -- a baby born in danger, a difficult reunion at a funeral.

They chronicle the round of the year and the quiet, continual effort to walk forward, to think about work and family and the light on the ridge lines.

Rachel is an old friend. She was my editor in her tenure at The Women's Times and my chief at Inkberry, and she has given me tea in her Sukkah roofed with golden rod when we sat looking through the loosely woven roof at the full moon.

She has also taught me the depth and variety and compassion in the way she practices her faith. It is not the one I grew up with, but she and I think about faith in very much the same way, and reading Rachel's prayers and poems and open letters has shown me a faith that opens continually, that shuts no one out, and that insists on honesty, effort and care.

Anne Frank put into words for me what this kind of faith can do: hers was not a fear of God but a time to pause each night and think over what she had done that day, what she found good and what she wanted to change. Making the effort gave her comfort, and the idea of not making it baffled and scared her.

Watching the trees bud through the grimy window of her hidden annex and longing for fresh air, she wrote: "I ... have spent days searching for an effective antidote to that terrible word ‘easy.' ... We have many reasons to hope for great happiness, but ... we have to earn it. And that's something you can't achieve by taking the easy way out."

When she wrote that, she could not walk out a door into the street. She reminded me that swinging out my front door onto the tarmac (or the ice) is a freedom.

So Rachel's poetry reminds me of what I have and what I can do.

I have had the inconceivable luck to sit thinking on her couch while she composed on her laptop across the room.

It was a quiet, clear November afternoon, and she wrote that the grey hills were as soft as chamois leather. November has never seemed as bare since then.

To find the book and learn about the publisher, visit www.phoeniciapublishing.com.


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