Haiku Covers and Holiday Cheese

I’m gushing right now with enthusiasm after reading an email from a poet whose chapbook I may get to help design and print! It’s a collection of the most lovely urban haikus and I as soon as I read them as an e-chapbook on my phone I could envision carving this luscious woodblock for the cover, maybe two colors and essentially illustrating the title haiku. Then I second guessed myself, and after much backspacing and retyping, I tentatively sent a reply asking somewhat sheepishly what he thought of doing something “fairly literal,” trained by years in art school never to come at something head on. His reply sent me out of my chair to dance around my chilly room: “Your cover idea is spot on. A handsome woodcut cover of [chapbook title shortened] sounds perfect! In response to your “fairly literal” comment, the thing about haiku is that they are first and foremost exactly what they are. The title poem is literally about [chapbook title extended] That image, though, simple and straight forward as it is, opens up a whole world of ideas, stories, and settings that are unique to each person who reads it. The poem sets a concrete image/setting and the rest is all filled in by the reader and their life experiences, which is something so darn cool about these little poems.”

Sorry for editing out the gem of his first poem, but you’ll just have to wait for the forthcoming edition! I haven’t been so jazzed about a project since I was being graded on them. :P

I think part of my hesitation towards the idea of an honest illustration ties into this culture of cynical irony which I sometimes encounter in the art world, and elsewhere. Perhaps we feel too heavily the postmodern sigh of everything having been “already done,” but it’s almost as if to simply make work about beautiful things is automatically trite or cheesy. But I want to argue that activities like painting oats in a field in late summer are not automatically cliche, unless you refer to them as “amber waves of grain.”

This line of thought comes partly in reaction to yesterday evening’s activities, attending a womens’ advent dinner in the church basement. After a dinner provided by the women’s bible study (mostly meat dishes), a program followed in which various sentimental holiday stories were told (memorized and dramatized) by a speaker, with a carol in unison following each tale. Now, it’s true that these pieces were of the variety I have previously received in email forwards, and which seem to thrive in religious environments; the saccharine grocery store scene in which a little girl sees a little boy without shoes and foregoes a purchase to help him, or something along those lines. But most of the women seemed to follow the stories earnestly, laughing at the appropriate times, and tracing the graph of emotion with their expressions. One woman, however, the daughter of a sunday school teacher who just moved back from out west, not-so-subtly snickered through the whole thing.

I don’t entirely know how to react to this genre myself. It’s easy to mock, and perhaps deserves it to a degree. I think sometimes affluent white Christians have a tendency to stick to “heartwarming” stories of chance encounters in which they do nice deeds (one story featured a woman asking a strangers for directions to “a street where poor people live” and ultimately catching a cab to Harlem so that she could drop off a baby dress she bought in a department store on Christmas Eve.) instead of engaging daily in the real mess of life side by side with neighbors who don’t have a “comfortable lifestyle.” We may make a gift-giving trip once a year, but still keep real poverty a cab drive away from our own lives.

Other stories, though, which might be written off as equally cheesy, celebrate the tenderness of a child learning to make sacrifices and finding joy in serving others. And those are things I want to affirm, those are moments which may be worth repeating. I cried during one of the stories. But there the tears were mixed with anger and embarrassment because I felt emotionally manipulated. Perhaps there are better ways to talk about meaningful holiday observance than with these stories which seem designed more to make us “feel inspired,” rather than animating us to action.

Last Thursday, the night before I left for a weekend trip to St. Louis, I found out that the first friend I made here, Rob, had broken his leg two weeks ago and had been in the hospital for over a week and I hadn’t known because of missing church. (Thanksgiving with family one week, then work the next.) Rob and his wife Nancy are my closest friends in the church and I had no idea! I felt awful, especially as we don’t simply see one another Sunday to Sunday, but have shared meals and shopping trips throughout the week on several occasions. Well, I wrote him a card that night, since visiting hours were over, and determined to visit him the Tuesday after I returned, my day off. I called Nancy to make sure he was still awake and headed over. She was there crocheting, I could see her nestled into the armchair through the window as I walked up to the rehabilitation center. The three of us chatted and caught up for two hours before my stomach called me away to dinner. Before I left, Nancy began searching for her keys so she could walk out with me to her car to get a suitcase to pack him up (he was finally going home the next day). The keys were nowhere to be found. Walking out to the car, we saw them in the ignition, though she’d manually locked the doors.

I had the pleasure of driving Nancy back to Ohio and then out to the rehab center in West Virginia again, and was tickled pink that I finally had a way to serve the friends who had so welcomed me, feeding me so many times and taking me to Sam’s and to the local farm market for produce and cider.

This is the part where a religious forward would probably insist that the reason I hadn’t found out until so late is that I would have been unlikely to go visiting on the last night in the hospital if I had already had a chance to stop by, and then wouldn’t have been there to help retrieve the second set of keys, but I don’t know about all of that. I just know that for me there was joy in getting to spend that hour reciprocating some of the love shown to me, and I wish you that kind of joy this December.

It’s been too long. Time for a photo-fueled update.

Halloween came and went, and though I dressed in a cape and sat watching from our creepy house on the hill with a large bucket of candy, no children ventured up to my heights. I was left to enjoy the view of our valley of steeples and take disturbing photographs of the children from above.

I’m settling into my job and enjoying the confidence routine brings. There are other, less routine, delights, like making thanksgiving decorations or receiving a bouquet of colored roses from an older gentleman I met at church.

I’ve also had the distinct pleasure of getting to know my roommate’s sister better, who bravely moved across our wide state to join us in town, though living with her father on his farm in the sticks. She had me over for dinner this past weekend, trying her hand at Thai cuisine with tasty results.

After an accompanying glass or two of wine, I decided to stay the night on the couch, and was delighted by the morning light as it gamboled amongst the glittering first frost.

I slept beneath this wall,

and was given the gift of these views on my drive home from her rural abode.

Other nights I spend painting chairs, fixing walls, and experimenting in the kitchen. Did you know that if you boil beets and then cook perogis in the same water, the color of the resulting dumplings adds some real pizzazz to your plate? Same with pasta. All red food is better than the sometimes too frequent beige plate, in my opinion. In our excitement, we decided to save the beets for a future meal, so the perogis could take center stage.

I’m finally starting to feel cozy here. Miss you.

Ups and Downs

Much has happened since I last posted here, some of it trivial, but new and exciting:

  • I learned how to tell which batch of pitot is freshest by the amount of condensation on the bag.
  • I shopped at the shuk often enough to have favorite spots for produce, dried fruit, bulk grains and spices.
  • I finished a Jane Austen novel that wasn’t Pride and Prejudice.
  • I got a haircut.
And some not-so-trivial things, as well:
  • Gilad came home.
  • A young woman I met in St. Louis – 28 years old, with a 3-year-old little girl – passed away tragically of cancer, after much suffering.
  • I celebrated my twenty-second birthday.
  • My cousin gave birth to a baby girl here in Israel.
Each deserves its own post, and I fully intend to write them soon, while I still have fresh memories of these events. But I am emotionally drained from a week of intense celebration and mourning. Soon I will go back to school, and settle into my routine, and you’ll hear about my learning and my adventures bein hazmanim. Right now, it’s about all I can do, between braiding my challahs and cooking my cholent, to wish you Shabbat Shalom and Shabbat Menucha – Sabbath peace and Sabbath rest.

Yom Kippur Post-Mortem

What can I say? It was Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. It was great. It was so, so great.

We davened at the men’s school, which is located near the women’s school but not near our apartments. On Rosh Hashana we all walked two miles from our neighborhood to the yeshiva, which was fine considering we left before the sun was up and hot, but even a pre-dawn two-mile walk on Yom Kippur is a recipe for disaster. So we slept at school. On Thursday night we borrowed mattresses from a kindly old couple and carried them – under arms, atop heads – back to our building.

Even though I was technically more prepared for Yom Kippur than I’ve ever been (having been in seminary for the past month learning about teshuva, tefilla, and tzedaka), when erev YK rolled in I started feeling uneasy. So late Thursday night I sat down with the vidui, the confession that we recite ten times over the course of YK, and all my vidui-related materials from school, and thought about what I wanted to say to God over the course of the coming day.

I woke up early Friday morning feeling nervous – butterflies-in-the-stomach, something-important-is-coming kind of nervous. I davened, guzzled water, prepared several meals of complex carbohydrates and proteins. In the early afternoon, I showered, packed up my things, dressed for the holiday, and got on a bus. I davened mincha at school (vidui practice round), ate the seuda mafsekes with the other girls, lit candles, took a deep breath, and left for the yeshiva.

A magical thing was happening as I made my way to kol nidrei. Hundreds of Yerushalmim, dressed in white, were beginning to flood the streets as they headed toward shul. The last few cars were pulling into their spaces; a thick, powerful, tranquil silence was falling over the city, and I had the distinct sense that the same was true all across our tiny, wonderful country.

The nighttime davening was nice, but I wasn’t feeling well – something I’d eaten hadn’t agreed with me – so my kavana was not at its best. Nevertheless, I made it through kol nidrei and maariv and said a few perakim of Tehillim before dropping off to sleep.

I woke with my alarm at 6:00 Shabbos morning. I went to shul and found myself drifting in and out of focus, unable to connect to a powerful image and stay there. (On Rosh Hashana, I found it helpful to picture a magnificent throne, solid gold and silver, hundreds of feet tall, and to remind myself that this was only a fraction of the majesty of the Kiseh haKavod, the Throne of Glory upon which Hashem “sits”, as it were.) There were many moving moments, of course, but I wanted to feel continually inspired and I was frustrated with myself that it just wasn’t happening. I’d planned to stay at the yeshiva during the break between mussaf and mincha, saying Tehillim and reading about the avoda of the Kohen Gadol on YK. Instead I went back to school and took a nap.

I rested fitfully until my friend S. woke me for mincha. We walked back to the yeshiva and I said my shmoneh esrei. That’s when I started to feel weak from the fast. I’d been mildly hungry all morning, but the jelly legs and the shaky hands were coming full on now, and I was starting to despair. I ditched the rest of mincha and sat outside, getting some fresh air.

Then I realized I could ask for help.

God, I said, I don’t know when I’ll have another Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. I want to feel the power of this day. Please send me some inspiration. Make this last tefilla meaningful. 

Maybe the inspiration and the power and the joy were there all along, and I just wasn’t tuned in. Maybe it’s just that I’ve always loved and connected to neilah. Or maybe God answered my tefilla. Whatever the reason, neilah was . . . extraordinary.

I’ve experienced beautiful davening many times in my life: quiet, powerful, private davening; energetic, joyous, Carlebachian singing; selichos that absolutely move one to teshuva. But the experience of being in a room filled with hundreds of people whose only concern is getting as close to God as possible cannot be replicated. We stood together in the bais medrash, singing each line of Avinu Malkeinu one by one, screaming out Shma Yisrael, Baruch Shem Kevod, Hashem Hu haElokim, and everything else, everything physical – the pain of the fast, the pain of standing for hours – was completely replaced by a transcendant energy and closeness.

***

As neilah ends, as we say Hashem Hu haElokim seven times, God ascends up through the seven levels of Shamayim, ending the closeness that was available to us during Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. But in Jerusalem, you can feel God’s presence close by even as Yom Kippur comes to a close, because as the stars come out, the sukkahs are going up across the city.

There are no fewer than eleven distinct sukkahs in this frame. Can you spot them all?

Wishing you a joyous chag!

Mercer County Wedding

I was a bridesmaid in another friend’s wedding this weekend. And it was country. You might wanna drop an octave and drawl that last word. I’m talking this kind of country, the guy from Ohio.

I drove out Thursday to try to be helpful, having been MIA thus far, and after I drive through miles of flat two lane roads surrounded by fields and turn onto a road even Google doesn’t know how to spell, I pull up to the groom’s house. The bride to be is standing barefoot on the trunk of the car watching for me. I should not have been surprised that before we left for the rehearsal dinner I would learn to fire a gun.  

When I arrived, however, our first task was to work on the centerpieces, mason jars filled with wheat berries which the groom pulled from the freezer in a 50lb bag he proceeded to open with a screwdriver. Ever the adventurous eater, I tried a handful. Frozen unground flour is actually pretty good if you let it soak in your mouth a while before chewing.


 

We measured the berries a cup a jar as a base for the flowers and long-stemmed wheat which would be added the day of the wedding. All the while, 6 or so dogs swirled around us, trying to trick us into throwing onions they had selected as balls. Not surprisingly, we were fast friends.
Later, I met the chickens, chicks, and toured the garden. I felt very at home.

 

As the groom’s siblings came by the house (12 children total, only 1 who still lives at home) things got particularly interesting. I had the tree explained to me over and over and with the help of a quilt diagram and a room with a portrait of each, I finally started to get names, ages, and marital status right. I worked a little bit on their powerpoint of childhood photos, enjoying the chance to have a long look at their histories.

That night and the next we had incredible skies: double rainbows with sunsets. We made excuses to stay outside, wrapping saran wrap around the wagon the bridal party would take from the ceremony to the reception, so it wouldn’t be too windy. The groom’s father hung a rosary in the tree for good weather on Saturday.   

 

קול דודי דופק

Once upon a time, there was a very great king who ruled over an enormous kingdom. He had many loyal subjects, a splendid palace, stables filled with beautiful, strong horses, miles of flower gardens, and orchards overflowing with sweet produce. The king was happy and at peace, but he wanted someone with whom he could share all of this goodness. He decided to search for a wife. 

The king searched high and low, and finally, he found her – the perfect wife, the perfect recipient of his goodness. He married her and brought her to his palace, and for a short time, their happiness was exquisite. But the new queen soon grew unhappy. She was not of royal birth, and she felt that she was not cut out for life in the palace. In the palace, she realized, the queen must always be beautiful and courteous, and she found it too difficult to live up to the king’s expectations. She loved the king, and she loved being near him, but life in the palace was simply too challenging. She decided to run away. 

Disgraced and miserable, she returned to her village and tried to resume her old life. But something had changed in her. Now that she knew how much more there was to life, she saw the villagers as coarse and simple. The villagers saw how she pitied them, and they hated her and persecuted her terribly. Now what could she do? She could not stay in the village, because she did not belong here, and she could not return to the palace, because she had betrayed the king’s love. 

As she considered her predicament, the king was searching for her. He traveled for many days to her small village and left no stone unturned. Finally, he knocked on the door of her little house late one night, but by the time she gathered the courage to open it, he was gone. 

This moment in the mashal of Shir haShirim – the moment when the King knocks on our door, searching for us – is Aseres Yemei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance. The pasuk in Isaiah tells us: “.דרשו ה’ בהמצאו; קראוהו בהיותו קרוב” Seek Hashem while He may be found; call out to Him while He is near. Do not wait too long to open the door – He will only wait there until Neilah. 

Of course, this is not the end of the story. Sof sof, the king found his queen, swept her off her feet, and brought her back to his palace. The queen protested – “How can I come back to the palace with you after I betrayed you? You gave me everything that is good and beautiful, and I threw it away it for life in the village.” The king answered her, “You have forgotten about the special provision in our kesuba that no other marriage has ever had. It says that no matter how many times you betray me, I will always take you back in the end.” May we open the door wide this Yom Kippur, and may this be the year that the King takes us back once and for all.

(Mashal heard from Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller.)