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Category: interfaith family

into the depths

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all week in this old house, we’ve been burrowing deep into ancient and timeless stories. the story of the exodus, pesach, the retelling of the jews’ escape from slavery in egypt, a retelling that elie wiesel, the late great nobel laureate and holocaust survivor, called “a cry against indifference, a cry for compassion.” it is a retelling stitched with blessing, and question, and story.

its leitmotif, “you were strangers in a strange land,” God’s words to Abram, a call to radical empathy, a call to ever open our hearts to those who are strangers, marginalized, in our midst.

after three nights of seder, of coming to tables filled with people we love, after cups of wine, and reciting of plagues, after singing dayenu (the hebrew word for “enough,” as in God’s love would have been more than enough, in a rising series of praises — “if God had only created the world and not brought us out of egypt, it would have been enough”), we pivot to the holiest hours of holy week — or i do anyway.

i am deep now and deepening. i hear the cry of my soul, being pulled into timelessness, into sacred hours and space. i burrow into the stories of the last supper (the seder of Jesus and his twelve apostles), of gethsemane, of the betrayal by Judas, of the mocking and crowning with thorns, of the bone-crushing cross shouldered by Jesus as he stumbled along the trail to his crucifixion at golgotha, the hill just outside jerusalem, the hill where he cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me,” and then, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” the whole arc of anguish and redemption in two short utterances.

it never fails to draw me deep into the nautilus of prayer.

and so, late yesterday, as the slant of light grew thin and thinner, i was pulled into a jewel box of a medieval stone chapel, its leaded windows a mosaic of cobalt and ruby and aquamarine. i was alone. i had only my prayer and my deepening.

today will be more of the same. the hours of silence, from noon till three, the hour, we’re told, when Jesus let out his final surrender, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” when he breathed his last, and the sun’s light was extinguished, i will do as generations before me have done: utter not a word, follow my prayer to the hushed place within. i will keep my holy vigil for the suffering that once was, and the suffering that goes on to this day, to this hour.

in both the story of exodus and the story of the crucifixion, we are called not only to honor them as ancient and long-ago narratives. we’re to infuse them with the now. to employ them as holy script, as instruction, imperative, to find in their depths the modern-day call to action: search for the stranger, embrace the stranger. set a place at your table, and make it the finest you have. love even your enemy. forgive your enemy.

turn yourself wholly and finally to God.

both stories, a call to radical empathy. both stories, imploring divine surrender.

both stories i’m burrowing into this week. this week of ancient and timeless holiness. this week with wisdom for now.

may your holy days — however they come — be deep and be blessed.

and happy blessed birthday to my beautiful little ella today turning eight, and to my beloved mother-in-law ginny (the chair’s most loyal reader perhaps) whose day is tomorrow. 

hope patrol

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i’m just in from searching for hope. my boots are a bit muddy. my fingers are cold. and i’m not surprised to report there were no sightings of winter loosening its miserly grip.

sadly, in my corner of the world there is no snow. no drifts of white. no boughs laden with icy meringue. no fat flakes tumbling, tumbling from heaven to earth.

there is, more than anything, drab brown. not even rich brown. drab. drained-of-zing brown. which, perhaps, is apt description for my soul of late. which is why i was out searching.

thank heaven, the heavens responded last night: posted a nearly full moon, a fat moon, a bright moon, a moon that tonight will glow in all its glory. full snow moon. the moon that marks the arrival at sundown of a jewish holiday i’ve come to love. tu b’shevat it’s called, and it marks “the new year of the trees.” in israel, the holy land where all of these blessings begin, it’s the date on the calendar when vernal whisperings begin. when, if you pulled out your magnifying lens, and tiptoed close to the tips of the almond tree’s branches, you’d easily see the evidence: fat buds, fatter by the hour.

the trees are shaking off their slumber. the trees are stirring toward blossom, toward heavenly perfume, toward fruit. (the prescriptions for tu b’shevat i find wholly enchanting, a four-course feast of fruits and wine, so explained by the kabbalists, those deeply spiritual thinkers who believed that we elevate ourselves by the eating of certain fruits on tu b’shevat. if done with holy intention, they taught, sparks of light hidden in the fruit could be broken open from their shells, freed to float up to heaven, to the great divine, completing the circle of the renewal of life. oh my.)

it’s the eternal rhythm of earth and heavens. the inalterable equation of light from above, and richness from deep down inside the earth. it’s carried us forth, a pulsing pull, from the beginning of time. till now. and some winters — some winters inside our soul — we need surrender to the holy earth, to the rhythms that sustain us, move us forward even when we don’t believe we’ve the energy to lift a weary foot.

this winter would be one of those winters. all around the news is drab to worse. we’ve all been holed inside. and around here not even buffeted by snows, by the glory of an icy-painted window pane. we’re worn thin.

so mother earth comes to comfort us. she offers hope. even when we cannot see it.

back before the winter came, my last act of hope came the day i dropped to bent knee, thrust my shovel in the ground, and tucked in dozens and dozens of bulbs. i’d scanned the nursery shelves for blues and whites, the colors of delft, of old willow plates, the colors of sky and cloud. it’s a form of prayer, i’d insist, to tuck hope beneath the earth, to step away, and await the moment when the surge comes, when the tender determined shoot of newborn green comes poking through the earth. declares triumph. offers proof that hope pays off.

it’s too soon for that moment, as my morning’s patrol has made perfectly clear. but i find hope in other ways. i find hope seeping in through the cracks. do you?

i felt hope last night sitting in a circle of prayerful souls. i feel hope as i watch folks far braver and bolder than me pick up the reins and write the truth. i feel hope as all around i see the humblest among us stirred to action. i feel an awakening, even though it’s not yet the one from down beneath the crust of earth, where all the roots are emboldening, the roots we cannot see.

maybe it’s a blessing that we’re all paying attention, maybe it’s a very good thing that we’re being reminded that a democracy is a fragile thing, a living breathing entity that, like the rhythms of the earth and sky, must be carefully attended to. and we must all hold up our corner of its banner. we must all — by little and by little — find our courage, find our voice, think hard, think critically, employ deepest civility, listen with a gentle heart, and wield the purest acts of justice. and not let go — ever — of plain old kindness. the sort that seems to be rising up in some of the loveliest defiance i’ve ever seen.

come to think of it, that all sounds like hope to me. maybe, after all, it’s out there where the winds blow cold, blow certain. maybe my muddy boots led me to the very thing i’m hoping for.

are you sensing any signs of hope? any stories of pure kindness you’d care to share? the more we hear, the more emboldened we become, i do believe….

couple special intentions on this second friday in february. two dear friends of the chair suffered heart-shatterings this week: deepest prayers to pjt, who lost her dearest best friend far far too soon, and pjv, whose sister — last i heard — is on a ventilator and whose hold is fragile at this point. at my house, we are remembering my papa who died this day 36 years ago. i’ve heard from a few of my brothers this morning, who are all mourning his long absence from our every day. 

if you’re curious about tu b’shevat, i wrote about it here a few years back….

the blessing of friday night dinner

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the table is already set. the brisket — five pounds of it — now idles in the fridge. its exercise in surrender — from muscled slab to fork-tender succulence — began yesterday, when for nearly five hours it filled the kitchen, filled the whole house really, even the brick steps just beyond the kitchen door, with olfactory titillation — a mix of chili sauce and bay leaf, brown sugar, red wine, clove and peppercorn.

img_8399no one’s coming for another 12 hours. but the preamble, the moment the binder img_8401of family recipes is pulled from the shelf, the moment i place the call to the butcher who always cracks a joke about my irish surname and my jewish cooking, that’s when i begin to be swept up in the magic of it all.

and this friday night, in particular, brings with it a whole new landscape. for all the shabbat dinners i’ve served, and there’ve been many, this is the first time our firstborn is taking the train, and coming home, or coming back to this old house anyway. his home now is miles away. but not too many miles. not as many miles as he’s been before, and will be again. so, tonight, i am sliding into the folds of a brand-new cloth, one i’ve not before slipped my arms, my heart, into. all week, i’ve had flashes of the old mama i must now be, the one with the ample bosom, and the flour-smudged apron, the one who opens wide the front door, as she pushes back the floppy curls now dripping from the workout in the steamy kitchen, and welcomes in her sprawling brood. (ditch the ample bosom, ditch the flour-smudged apron, and the portrait takes a closer resemblance to my reality.)

i’ve had this friday night on the calendar for weeks now. it’s the shabbat when, after dinner, we will go to synagogue to say the mourning prayers, the prayers of yartzeit, marking the one year since my father-in-law, my boys’ beloved grandpa, the only one they ever knew, died.

for this night, the word went out: please be home for dinner.

and so, some time this morning, our old red wagon, now parked on a leafy college campus in iowa, will point east, pass cornfields and the occasional shimmering tower, and finally pull down our alley, bringing home the son who has now been without his father for a whole orbit of the globe around the sun. another boy will hop off his bike, park it in the garage, maybe think to wash his hands, once inside the bustling kitchen. and the third dinner guest will climb off the train, tuck his briefcase under his arm, and stride along acorn-pocked sidewalks till he gets to this old gray-shingled house.

it’s the blessing of the friday night dinner, a blessing like no other i have ever deep-breathed. as the week lurches to a close, as deadlines are met, and hustle and bustle hit pause, i circle in on final preparations. candles stand erect on the table. lids topple off the coterie of pots and pans. i blanket the challah — the loaf of braided egg bread that’s a staple of shabbat — with the cloth my firstborn penned with brightly-colored markers long ago in kindergarten sunday school. wine will be poured.

and one by one, they’ll trickle in, the boys i love. they’ll have put their busy weeks, their worries and distractions, behind them. i’ll strike the match, put flame to wick, and unfurl the first of the three blessings. blessings for the sanctuary of time we’ve constructed friday after friday, just before sundown, according to ancient text and modern-day awe. for all time is holy, but on friday nights when the table’s set, the candles  are burning, and the faces you love are the ones you look up to see, that’s when the cloak of holiness drapes most certainly around your shoulders.

tonight, we’ll raise a glass of deep red wine, and my husband will lead us in the prayer we call “grandpa’s prayer,” the shehecheyanu, the blessing reserved for the most extraordinary times, the most sacred times. the times when you reach deep down to the bottom of your soul, and pull up grace and blessing. when every pore of your being shimmers with the knowing of how richly, finely, you’ve been blessed, anointed by purest holiness.

and because i stumbled on my own jewish prayer of blessing, of remembering, i too will recite words that stir me to full attention, words that make me bristle with deepest knowing just how sweet the hour is, every blessed hour, and the turning of each season. and the knowing, too, that the ones we love are ever woven into the whole of who we are.

the words are these:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

may the memory of my beloved father-in-law, arthur zavel kamin, ever be a blessing. and may your friday night be drenched in all that is holy, is deep, is broken loose from the shackles of haste and deadline.

do you have a weekly pause for holiness? what’s your preamble for sinking into sacred time?

and into my kitchen, they all congregated

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i’d ordered the brisket, five pounds of first-cut beast, as instructed. i was due to dash out the door to the butcher’s at the agreed-upon hour, but first i needed to quick-read my passover checklist. so i pulled my family cookery book off the shelf, the one where, over the years, i’ve tucked snippets and pages and odd scribbled notes. it’s my holding yard for guideposts to brisket and kugel and those chopped balls of fish called gefilte — decades and centuries of recipes, really, passed one generation to the next.

in my case, it’s the fat stash of invitations into an ancient tradition that was not mine, but now is. in my case, it’s my compendium of adopted jewish mothers and grandmothers and aunties and surrogate whisperers over my shoulder, all committed to paper and ink, and clicked into a three-ring binder.

and that’s when the first kitchen companion — unseen but certainly sensed — came into the room. before i got to the tab marked “jewish holidays,” i’d flipped open a page, and there was a name staring out at me, the name of my irish friend who’d just died, tagged in crisp typed letters at the bottom of her blueberry cake, one she must have passed along because once i’d oohed and ahh-ed. i paused for a moment, picturing her, picturing her blueberries, picturing her rare nod to domesticity (though she always loved a great meal). and then i turned another page; i found another now-departed instructor of kitchen arts. i scanned over the words, her careful instruction, her side whispers and peculiar idiosyncrasies, always tucked off to the margin in parenthetical insistence. (“Try not to burn it.” “yes, tablespoons,” “don’t food process, or you will have mush,” “it’s OK if it seeps over the rest…”)

i came to the brisket, the one my boys practically lick off the plate. i followed my scribbles for haroset, the mortar of apples and walnuts and cinnamon and honey, with a splash of manishewitz kosher concord wine. i read through kugel, one i’d not made before, but one my boys have counted on, ever since their very first passover at the long, long table of tribune folk, the one that for them will forever be synonymous with the exodus from egypt. with every page i turned, i drew in another to my sacred kitchen circle: harlene ellin’s mama, queen of the brisket; ina, whose claim to fame (besides her long-standing, much-loved chicago breakfast eatery) is the seltzer she adds to her matzoh balls to make them “floaters” of cloud-like proportion; andrea, who wandered by the other day, and did not scoot off before penning an all-new kugel and a middle-eastern charoset, now added to my collection.

and then, assured of my passover-cooking itinerary, i reached on the shelf for the mini-sized chopper of apples i’d employ for making old-fashioned haroset. as i lifted the sharp blade and bowl from the box, out toppled a post-it, now nearly 23 years old. it was from the grandma of my heart, my grandmother-in-law whom i loved fromIMG_7512 the get-go. just weeks after our firstborn was born, she’d packed up the mini-chopper and sent it from west palm beach to our little house in chicago. she tucked in a note, in her signature scribble: “dear children,” she began, declaring straight off that she counted me one of her own. “perhaps you will be able to grind veg. for willie when he is ready for them.” and suddenly grandma syl (“the teaneck tornado,” they called all four-foot-nine of her) was there in the kitchen beside me, pressing against my shoulder blade, her tousled silvery head barely reaching the top of my arm. wasn’t long till i was awash in the tears that come when remembering hurtles you back in time, erases the years, fills your head and your heart with unmistakeable presence. i could hear the squeak of her voice. i could feel, in an instant, as if it was the summer of 1993 all over again, the weight of the lump in my arms, the newborn lump who’d precipitated the need, apparently, for a rapid-fire way to make baby puree. (and, as i stood there blinking away my tears, i re-sealed my vow never to toss out a love note or a scrap that might come tumbling from the pages of a book, or the contents of a gift box, swirling you back in time every time, rekindling the thump of the heart that won’t ever fade.)

and so it went, hour upon hour yesterday. as i chopped and stirred and cranked the oven. by day’s end, when the table was set with dishes passed from one china cabinet to the next, when i’d pulled the haggadahs from the shelf, found the seating chart from last year, with yet another name no longer among us, i’d filled my house with those i’ve loved and lost.

it must be the sorrow that’s made me more porous this year. that, according to celtic tradition, has made for the thinning between heaven and earth, that’s pushed my soul soft up against the sacred openings, where angels seep in.

and why not fill my jewish holiday kitchen, my passover kitchen, with page after page of those who’ve shown me the way? those who took my unfamiliar irish-catholic hand, and led me into the back lanes and secret passageways of this jewish-catholic marriage? why not invite them all into my kitchen for the day, and set a place at the table — at my heart — for each and every one of them?

so tonight, when i bow my head and strike the match to light the blessed shabbat and pesach candles, everyone else will count a mere five at the table. i, though, will feel the embrace of a whole company of cookstove companions and patron saints of jewish cookery. and i will offer up a litany of prayer for each and every one of them. each and every one of the ones who’ve shown me the shortcuts to heaven, where too many now reside.

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brisket, before its overnight nap in the fridge

do you too find cookery books, the homespun kind, fill your kitchen with those you’ve loved, and those who’ve shown you particular ways? 

p.s. i know i promised field notes from my poetry get-away, and those will come — next week, perhaps. the bottom line was that paying attention is at the heart of poetry and prayer, and we’re all the richer for keeping a keen eye to the mystery and miracle that abounds.

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haroset: apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey, with a splash of manishewitz

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roasted shank bone, roasted egg for the seder plate

and now we pause for awe…

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the lamb has been ordered. the prayer books, slipped from the shelf. soon, i will slice the pomegranate and begin to count the seeds. are there really precisely 613, the same as the number of mitzvot, or commandments, as the sages taught, as i was told in whispers in a kosher kitchen once upon a time?

i have been curious, asking questions, burrowing into the holiness of the new year, the jewish new year, rosh hashanah, ever since i stumbled on that fine bespectacled fellow in the newsroom so long ago, decades ago now. and because i come to this beginning — this pause to behold the wonder of creation, original creation — with inquisitive heart, because question upon question tumbles before me, because one leads to another and another, i can’t help but be drawn deep into what these days offer: these days offer awe.

they are called, quite precisely, the Days of Awe.

awe, my dictionary tells me, is “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”

awe, my etymologists* tell me, has deep roots in fear, and traces back to circa 1300, aue, “fear, terror, great reverence,” earlier aghe, circa 1200, from a Scandinavian source, such as Old Norse agi “fright;” from Proto-Germanic *agiz- (cognates: Old English ege “fear,” Old High German agiso “fright, terror,” Gothic agis “fear, anguish”), from PIE *agh-es- (cognates: Greek akhos “pain, grief”), from root *agh- “to be depressed, be afraid” (see ail). the current sense of “dread mixed with admiration or veneration” is due to biblical use with reference to the Supreme Being. To stand in awe (early 15c.) originally was simply to stand awe. Awe-inspiring is recorded from 1814.

in my own dwelling inside these days of awe, i don’t think too much about fear. i tend toward wonder. the God i know and sidle next to is not one who makes me tremble. truth is, i’m most myself when i draw deep into the hollows of God. when i feel myself wrapped in the arms of the one who gave me breath, and question, and proclivities for awe.

because this pause for holiness is at once still new to me, and now familiar, because in many ways it’s always felt as if i’d been waiting for reason to hold up these days, to hold up these autumn’s-coming hours, i walk through them with all pores open. i love the pungent notes that will rise up from the pot on the stove, the one where lamb simmers alongside onion and celery and garlic, before the apples and raisins and cinnamon settle in. i love the way the molasses morning light pours across the page. i love each sentence i find on the page, especially the ones that startle me, give me pause, give me much to think about during the long hours in synagogue, during the long walks that will punctuate the pause, the anointing that makes the days of awe unlike ordinary time.

because i am always, always drawn to the sage of all sages, abraham joshua heschel, i pulled him, too, from the shelf this morning. i’ve been filling the shelves with heschel for a long long time. even before i knew i’d be the one to share my husband’s bookshelves.

this morning i found this from heschel, along with the pages of prayer that we will tuck under our arms and carry to the pews where the prayers will come. because it speaks to all of us who are inclined to turn in, to refuel in the depths of quietude, i share these fine heschel thoughts as something of a blessing for these days when we pause for awe.

here’s heschel, from “On Prayer,” found in the collection, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, edited by Susannah Heschel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996):

Prayer is not a stratagem for occasional use, a refuge to resort to now and then. It is rather like an established residence for the innermost self. All things have a home: the bird has a nest, the fox has a hole, the bee has a hive. A soul without prayer is a soul without a home. Weary, sobbing, the soul, after wandering through a world festered with aimlessness, falsehoods, and absurdities, seeks a moment in which to gather up its scattered life, in which to divest itself of enforced pretensions and camouflage, in which to simplify complexities, in which to call for help without being a coward. Such a home is prayer. Continuity, permanence, intimacy, authenticity, earnestness are its attributes. For the soul, home is where prayer is.

may you find your way home in this sacred span of time, the one that unfolds across the coming hours, the ones i’ve come to know and love as the holy Days of Awe, when i bow my head, my heart, my soul, and pulse with the wonder of creation, and my one small moment to revel in all its glories.

how do you pause for awe? who is your trail guide across the landscape of prayer?

*my etymologists: online etymology dictionary

mullipuffed

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…it is written.

those were the words onto which my eyes locked, as i turned to page 108 in the morning prayer service of the new union prayer book for the days of awe:

“on rosh hashanah it is written..” 

those words burrowed deeper than they might otherwise have burrowed, those words that inform us that God is on high, is etching our fates into the great book of life, of destiny; a refrain of the jewish new year that is ancient and every year new. it is the beginning somber note of a two-part doxology: on rosh hashanah, it is written; on yom kippur it is sealed.

weighty enough. but even weightier this year for me.

for far beyond the walls of the synagogue, where i bent in prayer yesterday, i knew that cardboard boxes were plopping on door stoops, sliding into the hungry maws of mail boxes. i knew because blessed friends had been sending me pictures. a book landing here, landing there. each one a birth.

indeed, it was written.

and that’s when suddenly the image popped into my mind: the wafting seeds, airborne puffs roto-coptering across the landscape, over farmer fields, over desert mountaintops, from sea to shining sea.

there’s a word that’s gone out of vogue, but i am on a one-woman campaign to revive it, breathe life back into it. it’s mullipuff, a delightful collection of syllables and spill-from-your-mouth cotton-ball consonants, and it is the word for the seed head of the dandelion, when its yellow fronds are spent, but its deepest job is just beginning: it’s about to take flight, and in that breathtaking way, transformation has occurred. it has seed dropping to do. holy act of faith, indeed. flinging itself to the winds and the rains. counting on calm blanket of air, of breeze, to carry it to where it might plop, sink in, begin the birth and rebirth.

mullipuff.

…it is written.

and so i find myself this morning, twirling and spinning the thought of all those books, of those pages being turned, and i know this is where i need to pray most mightily. this is where the holy act begins. the book is landing, and with it the words, the prayers burrowed deep down inside. lying in half-sleep this morning, i prayed that those words — like seedlets in motion — would begin their journey, their voyage, their sacred beginning….i imagined each word propelled, each one decked out with little flagella, those microbiological wings — propellers — that scurry amoeba along. if you’ve ever put your eye to the microscope lens, you know what i mean, the little flippers that make the droplets of pond water swim across the microscope slide.

so, i imagine, the words. so i pray for the words. now that they’re unloosed on the world, now, i pray, “please do your job.”

it’s what happens, i suppose, when you don’t set out to write literature, don’t sink your heart into plot twist or narrative arc. but when all you do is set out to unfurl your heart, to write a plainspoken book of common prayer. the prayer from one harried mama who is looking so hard for the holy. who, after practice and practice, is beginning to gather it, to fill her heart with it. to find the holy bliss she’s been looking for. looking for so very long.

and so, this morning, i hold my breath, i pray my prayers, i ask the heavens to take over where i can’t go. the words that i typed are dandelion seeds. they are wafting now. landing, burrowing down.

dear God, let the seedlings take root. let something begin deep in the hearts and the souls. a scratching the surface, and quietly quietly sinking deep down where wonder takes root. where eyes are widened, and ears are perked. let the holy begin to rustle. let it quiet the noise, and peel back the hard dull edge, make known the unnoticed. let the hours be mined for all that they hold — magnificence, mystery, luminescence and shadow. let us see the beauty, behold the beautiful. let the books that land on the doorsteps, let them be the field guide to what lies deep within. the wonder, the wisdom, the Sacred.

so now you’ve read along as i prayed out loud. saying your prayers aloud gives them a bit more heft, adds ballast. i’ve been blanketed in that prayer all week, as i knew that little book, the one called Slowing Time, was miraculously being boxed and shipped and delivered. it’s as if a hundred thousand prayers of my heart, the seeds of the mullipuff, are finally released, finally getting to work. and all i can do is pray that they land where they’re likely to burrow and bloom.

what constitutes the mullipuff you choose to blow into the world?

p.s. because i was enchanted by the noun, mullipuff, i turned it into a verb (up above), as in a weightless something blown upon the whisper of breath out across the landscape. mullipuffed. may what matters to your heart, be mullipuffed….

because i was wholly entranced, as i always am, by the prayers i find in the jewish prayer books, and because i was struck by how deeply i’ve been informed by the lens through which ancient jews marveled at the world, i carried home the prayer book, so i could share this prayer with you. it’s called, Your Endless Blessing, and it begins on page 82.

Great and holy Maker of all the living, 

You create the world, Your child, anew at every moment.

An instant’s pause in Your creative love, and all things would turn to naught.

But Your blessing glows in every spark of time.

Again and again the morning stars unite to hymn Your love.

Again the sun comes forth to sing Your light. 

Again the angels sing their sacred chant to You.

Again the souls intone their need for You.

Again the grasses sing their thirst for You.

Again the birds chirp their joy before You.

Again abandoned chicks voice their orphan-song to You.

Again springs softly bubble their prayer to You.

And still the afflicted pour out their complaint to You.

And still their souls’ prayer splits Your heavens. 

And still they tremble in awe of Your glory.

And still in hope they lift up their eyes to You.

One ray of Your light, and we are bathed in light!

One word from You, and we are reborn!

One hint of Your eternal presence, and we are refreshed with the dew of youth!

Author of life, as You renew all things, take us, Your children, and make us new.

Breathe Your spirit into us, that we may start life afresh, with childhood’s unbounded promise.

hours of sorrows

silence on day that darkens

amid this breathless week of passover seders and holiest hours, amid trying to pack lunches kosher for passover, and waking up early to stir and bake passover coffee cakes (in which it’s the egg white that’s relied upon for alchemy, to lift the leaden matzoh into something that falls on the tongue with delicate bite), amid wondering what to serve our muslim houseguest when she’s here for easter brunch while we’re keeping kosher for passover, today is the day i deep breathe.

today, good friday, holy friday, friday of sorrows at the nadir of the week, this is the day when the noon hour comes, and the sky darkens (at least in my searching imagination it does), and i retreat to my quietude. and my sorrows.

sorrows not my own, but sorrows for the world. sorrows of which there are too, too many. the more you read the newspapers, the more you turn the pages of memoir, the more and more you realize the world is shrouded in darkness. darkness that demands whatever energies we have to battle it back. to insist we’re not letting it win. we’re not standing by in abeyance. we’re not washing our hands, turning and dropping the ball, leaving the dirty work to anyone else.

on this day, in these hours of sorrows, i turn to that ancient and ever-birthing instrument of petition and promise: i pray. i pray on my knees (till my old bones tell me to stop, anyway). i pray curled by my window, my eyes deep in the words on the page. i pray all alone, just me and the God who is listening. listening, i’m certain.

this year, i’m bringing along a wisp of a book, a book originally published in 1955, before i was born, a book i searched for and found this year because its words had so stirred me, sitting in the pews at a church not far away in miles, but legions away in raw earthy truths. it’s a church filled with a few dozen languages and skin from pitch-black to blotchy from tears. it’s a church where i go to feel naked, to feel in communion with the messy stuff of humanity. i’ve seen old women, bent and bowed, rocking with tears, and mumbling half out loud. i’ve seen fat brown-skinned babies dunked in the holy waters. i’ve seen walkers and wheelchairs and crutches and canes. the whole lot of God’s sorrows streaming up to communion.

the book, this book that speaks to me, speaks to all who gather at st. nick’s and beyond, it’s “the way of the cross,” written and illustrated back in 1955 by caryll houselander, and you can find it from liguori publications, down missouri way.

way of the cross

now this caryll houselander, she was a bit of a rabble-rouser (a chain-smoking, profanity-spewing 20th-century british catholic mystic, artist, woodcarver, prolific author, teacher of disturbed children, counselor of the war-traumatized, widely known as “the divine eccentric”).

she liked her religion messy, she liked it to speak from the hollows of the human heart. and she lifted it out of long-ago millennia and into the moment, for me anyway. she puts me there in the dust at the side of the via dolorosa, the quarter-mile road in old jerusalem where jesus carried the cross, falling not once or twice but three times under the weight of those shoulder-crushing timbers. up the hill to calvary, where, upon that cross, he cried out, “father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” and then, with his mother weeping at the foot of the cross, he let out the gurgly rattle of death, and he died.

we all have words in our lives with magical mystical powers, words that unlock some soulful place in us. caryll houselander’s “way of the cross” does it for me.

here she is on veronica, the compassionate woman who burst through the rabble to come face to face with the tormented jesus. here she is, caryll houselander, with the pleading to God inspired by veronica wiping the face of jesus, a soulful act of compassion if ever there was:

give me Your eyes

to discern the beauty of your face,

hidden under the world’s sorrow.

give me the grace

to be a Veronica;

to wipe away

the ugliness of sin

from the human face,

and to see

Your smile on the mouth of pain,

Your majesty on the face of dereliction,

and in the bound and helpless,

the power of Your infinite love.

 

Lord take my heart

And give me Yours.

quietly, i leave you to enter your own pleadings and sorrows.

may this be a day steeped in the Holy. may your hours of sorrows draw you into a depth of compassion that lifts you beyond your own full deck of worries.

another road into compassion:  a few months back, i mentioned here that i was working on a story about a 20-year-old former star swimmer and water polo player who suffered a brain aneurysm in the fall of his senior year of high school and now lives in the hell called “locked-in syndrome.” the story just came out in marquette magazine, and web wizards masterfully interlaced film clips throughout the words of the story. if you are hungry for a bit of humbling today, you might want to click on patrick stein’s story here, as published in the magazine. 

how will you spend the hours of sorrows? 

all at once

before i was barely awake, before i’d lifted that first cup of wake-up to my thirsty lips, i was reaching for the red-polka-dot binder that has long been my guide through days like today.

after 20 years — that’s 20 passovers and 20 high holidays, 20 purims and 20 briskets with latkes aplenty — i’ve stuffed so many road guides into one fat pocket, that all i need do is flip to the itty-bitty tag marked “jewish holidays” and a whole chorus of voices rises up, whispers, cajoles, reminds, takes the pan from my hand and shows me the right way, her way, of course.

oh, there’s grandma syl in there, and audrey, my adopted jewish mother. there’s jan’s mom with her working-girl’s-guide-to-making-a-seder. and harlene’s mom with her now famous brisket. why, the whole los angeles times test kitchen is stuffed in that slip, weighing in with their rendition of noodle kugel, though not the one i’ll use today.

i’ve got the rabbi’s wife’s gefilte fish, step-by-step on a yellow legal pad, back from the day i spent at her side in her kitchen, sloshing and dunking those fish balls just the way she instructed. and, scribbled on a paper napkin not too many pages later, i’ve got the matzo balls that ina pinkney, one of chicago’s great jewish mamas, insisted, in her much-above-the-din stage whisper, would keep my hubby happy forever. so far, so good.

they are my chorus, my girls, my back-up squad, there for me every time i, irish catholic as the day is long, tiptoe into the kosher kitchen to make like a bubbe.

and today, the climb is a steep one. i’ve got to crank out a kosher-for-passover kugel for 10, one that calls for farfel, 6 cups, doused and swimming in 6 cups hot water. mind you, i’ve never touched a box of farfel, let alone taken it swimming.

but i’ve got to get it all done, signed, sealed, awaiting delivery, by noon.

because today is an all-at-once day of supreme proportion.

in addition to being the first night of passover, it is the somberest day in my book: it’s good friday, and i am biologically wired for silence from noon to three, when the sky will go dark, will rumble, when the whole world — just watch, i always tell my boys — will weep for the long-ago death of jesus there on the cross.

it’s a full plate today, yes indeed, and right through the weekend, as the holiest of days unfold flat atop the retelling of the exodus, the action-filled story of moses leading his people — our people — out of egypt, across the red sea and on into the promised land.

it’s a story whose retelling for more years than i’ve been married has pulled me to the tables of crowds now synonymous with the seder. i’ll be back at the seat at the tables where i’ve sat single, and newly engaged, where i was a new bride, then a pregnant one, and, for all the years after, the mother of one boy then two who were growing up as i now am: weaving their jewish and catholic stories into one unbreakable braid.

but, far back as i can remember, the first night of passover hasn’t fallen on what we call good friday, a name that always prompts my boys to ask, “why is it good if jesus died?”

good question; one, like so many, that’s hard to answer. but when you raise your children jewish and catholic you get used to that; there are many good questions hard to answer, so you get used to thinking aloud.

fact is, i’ll be scrambling all morning, groping my way through this roadmap of a recipe for johanna’s farfel-soaked noodle kugel. it’s a recipe that melts me into a puddle of kosher-for-passover butter because, without even closing my eyes, i can see my little one, his arms still chubby in that baby-fat way, reaching across the table, grabbing for the spoon, because it was perhaps the first exotic thing he ever loved. and, oh, he loved it. and after so many years of watching him love it, spoon it high onto his plate, and gulp it down, i finally managed to get the recipe from johanna. and today i tiptoe into the land of farfel.

it’ll be out of the oven, if all goes as planned, by the time the clock strikes 12.

that’s when i’ll be up in my window seat, with all my holy books spread around me.

already i am achingly missing my usual companion in that sun-soaked window nook: for all of his high-school years, my firstborn joined me, though it never took long for him to slide down under a blanket and doze, while i drank in the stories, retracing the stations of the cross, jesus’ long cruel walk to calvary.

but we were together, he and i in silence, and even though my open wounds of missing him have healed over plenty, even though i can get through a week without hearing even a syllable of his voice, today, in the silence, i will miss him.

i keep saying  — and it’s true — grief is like that. for long unbroken spells of time, you’re just fine, used to someone you love no longer being around, but then, out of the blue — a sound, a smell, a thought — it hits you like an anvil over the head — or is it the heart? — and there you are oozing in the wide-open emptiness that just might swallow you whole.

might be fitting, come to think of it, that on this day of remembering — remembering the exodus, remembering jesus’ last hours, and most of all his last gasp of holy forgiveness — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” — i should spend a solid few hours aching for my faraway firstborn son, as i absorb once again the afternoon of shadows.

and then, well before sundown, i will slide my farfel-soaked kugel off the counter, and carry it back to the passover table whose story i now know by heart.

it’s the way i’ve come to know it on days like this, all-at-once days, guided as ever, by my chorus of cooks stashed there in the polka-dot binder.

here’s all i managed to scribble, on a pink sheet of paper, marked “Johanna’s Kugel”:

6 cups farfel

6 cups water, soak up &…[i am giving you these notes precisely as i scribbled them, thus you can see the holes in my roadmap]

6 eggs — beat 1st, then add

2/3 c. sugar

2/3 cup brown sugar

3-1/2 t. cinnamon

1-1/2 t. salt

9 Tbsp oil

6 apples

lemon juice

mix. bake 350 degrees. 35-40 minutes.

and now, you too, can swim in the land of waterlogged farfel

how will you spend these holy days? 

seeds cast to the winds…

our house this week has been aswirl with all that comes in that holiest of weeks, the week at our house when, so often, passover and easter glide in and intermingle.

i’ve been in the kitchen, digging out the pint-sized processor my beloved jewish grandma (the one i’d felt was mine, from heart, if not from birth) shipped to us back when our firstborn was just born, and she decided, upon his birth, that it was the one thing i needed, so she boxed it up in florida to send our way, lest i choose to someday whir the baby’s veggies to a pea-green paste.

i made charoset for the first time in years, the apple-wine-and-walnut mortar, the one set upon the seder table, a table we’ve not set here in years and years, but did this year because the rabbi who usually leads us all in chants and jewish mysticism, he’s had a bumpy year and couldn’t manage yet another room of crowded tables.

i pulled the “silver palate” cookbook off the shelf, decided after much debating with myself, that the only feast that symbolizes passover for me is the chicken marbella, page 86, the one we’ve feasted on for 20-some years at a dear friend’s second-night seder. and so it is; it’s now our first-night feast, now that i too know how to grind the head of garlic, stir with spanish olives, prunes and capers, an aromatic cloud that filled the fridge for one whole night and next day long.

i roasted egg and shank bone. i boiled up matzah ball soup. ordered gefilte fish from the fishman. watched my boys sink in their forks, and smile from deep-down places.

and now, with the pantry stocked and freezer too, with foods that have no leavened grain, no grain at all, save for ground-up matzah, we carry on the catholic end of the week, the holy week, the days of awe for me.

and while i sometimes find myself in lonely place, alone at church on palm sunday, for instance, i have found in this end of the week, quiet joy, unexpected joy.

last night my little one sat beside me at holy thursday mass, the mass that remembers the last supper–a seder, after all. he curled into my side, entwined his slender getting-longer fingers in mine. he asked me questions throughout, and i whispered answers, so quietly moved that for once i was not alone at church.

and today, good friday, a day i’ve long marked in silence from noon to 3, in remembrance of jesus on the cross, jesus suffering, my 6-foot-3 rower told me he was skipping practice. why, i asked? because it’s slotted for noon to 2, he said, matter-of-factly, and it’s good friday.

i quietly felt a glow.

i have not been one to try to wedge my boys into the practice of my religion. i’ve not tried to wedge anything at all. i have offered up all i have. i have made the seders, left out holy books, asked plenty of questions, tried to answer questions without easy answers.

we have, every night since each boy was born, whispered a litany of prayers, a head-to-toe veneration and then some, before sweet child slipped into slumber.

i have put out shabbat candles every friday. made fish for most shabbats, a subtle catholic-jewish intertwining.

i have walked to the lakefront with my boys, tossed bread upon the waves, cast sins at the jewish new year. savored the ritual, felt deep-down blessing at the many roads to the holiest of holies.

i have honored the sacred in all its forms. but i have not demanded, not sulked. oh, i’ve shed tears, though, but not when anyone was watching. i’ve felt the price of living in a home where two religions were offered. i’ve felt the sting of their pointed questions, of not knowing if they believed at all.

it’s a far lonelier road than most anyone will tell. i have tried hard to make peace with carrying on my quiet flame, believing all alone, of being without my boys on holy thursday night when the time came to take off my shoes and have my naked feet washed by strangers, and to return the blessing all alone.

and this year, i am quietly and deeply moved that i was not alone last night, and will not be alone this afternoon in my silent vigil.

it is dicey business, this growing up with deep cords of faith, in a world where the secular is drowning out the sacred. it is double hard to try to teach two religions, when there seems barely room for one.

it is not wise, i figured out, to demand belief. there is no such demanding.

in the end, we can only light the candles, set the seder table, cook fish for each shabbat, revel in the glories of the good times, and pray to God that in the darkest hours, our children will find the seeds that we once planted. and those seeds somehow will swell and burst with the tender beginnings of a vine that someday will carry them to the heaven that surrounds us.

that’s my prayer this holiest of fridays.

and how do you pass the seeds of faith to your children, or to the ones you so love?

stirring sweetness

the beautiful thing about leaping into a religion that’s not your own, is there is no rule book.

well, there might be a tome or two on the shelves, but when you’re inventing, you often concoct as you go.

oh, sure you ask zillions of questions, you turn to the texts, pore over pages, searching for answers. but plenty of times, you go with the zeitgeist and, frankly, you wing it.

and so it was i bounded out of bed yesterday morn, on the dawn of the new year, rosh hashanah, and set out to make rosh hashanah bread pudding.

now, nowhere in the cookery books will you find such a sweet and pudding-y dish. there is no step-by-step guide to a sweeter morning than the usual cornflakes and cow’s milk.

ah, but like many a someone embracing something that’s new, that’s just a touch foreign, exotic, i can’t get enough.

give me a rosh hashanah prayer about morning stars and particles of dust floating on the wind, and i am swooning in my pew, thinking to myself, by jove, they’re talking to me, those ancient hebrew poets, the ones who thousands of years ago carved out these words to speak to my heart, here in the waistband of america, where leaves are just starting to rumble with thoughts of shedding their greens, too early just yet to unfurl great bolts of color.

truth is i tingle, through and through, here in these days of downright awe.

i am not a jew. but i love a jew. married him. bore our children. am raising those children in a house that is bathed in the best of two great and rather old faiths: we are catholic and jewish.

and this time of year, in these sacred golden-dripping days of awe, i cannot get enough of a whole-body immersion.

i am cooking it. praying it. setting the table with it. poring over the verses with it. inhaling every last drop of it.

everywhere i turn, there is awe. and it is sweet.

let’s start with the light: have you noticed the great kaleidoscope that is the turning of season has cranked it just to the north a notch, and now the sunbeams that hit us are amber molasses, tinged with spoonfuls of honey?

why yes, they drip on my bed pillows, my pages, my old creaky floorboards.

and then there’s that charge in the air, the one that has us un-sashing the windows, pulling back shutters, clearing the way so that cool night breezes might billow in, that air that seems at last purer and crisper, more certain to clear out our lungs from all the sticky still jungle air that took hold in the long hot summer.

but mostly, there are the prayers and the knowing now what i’ve always known: this is sacred time, new time, time that deeply matters. the days when our steps are counted, our deeds recorded, our fates inscribed in the holiest book.

God is paying attention, rapt attention, and so too must we.

thus, as if to upholster the year, to tilt it toward sweetness the whole way through, we stir it in in great dollops. a handful of raisins here. a bee-bumped macintosh chopped and grated over there.

we are watching as honey drools from a spoon. and wiping smudges, sticky, off from the table.

tonight this old house will be filled. the table as crowded as it knows how to be. if we could have layers of table, we would. i would invite everyone i have ever loved, and then some.

and just as the sun slips over the ledge and sacred twilight comes, having stirred the stews all night, and having set out my grandma’s silver, and the glasses of cobalt blue, i will strike a match and kindle the lights.

i will call on the legions of saints and angels who march behind me wherever i go. i will call on rachel and leah and rebekah.

i will look over (not down anymore, for the top of my head no longer makes it even to the cusp of his shoulders) at my firstborn, and gulp back the tear that comes with knowing he’ll not be home next year, or for years to come for that matter, on these sweetest of days upon days.

i will be humbled and filled all at once. will marvel that i, a deep quiet catholic, was somehow swept into the river that bathes me so richly, so wholly, so anciently. calling me back to where i must have once begun.

i count myself among the blessed, the ones who are stirred by the ancient hebrew poets, a people who marked time by the stirrings on the bough and in the field. who kept time by the heavens, the night star and moon. i read these rosh hashanah prayers through dual lenses, and in them i find such powerful majesty, such knee-buckling knowing of the intricacies of the human heart. today this meander is merely an unspooling, no deep lesson or question, other than this: what is it of this time of year that heightens in you a deep sense of awe, no matter your religion?

p.s. that rosh hashanah bread pudding? nothing more to it than torn-up bits of the night before’s raisin-studded challah, with a fat granny smith grated into it, along with a handful of even more raisins and cranberries (why stop when studding your pudding?) i had promised rosh hashanah bread pudding to my little one who loves a good reason to leap out of bed. and thus, once stirred from my dreams, i had little choice but to come up with a version that lived up to the promise.