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Category: interfaith family

love story of unlikely plot line

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it all started when the dishwasher broke. well, not the whole story. but this latest installment in the look-back machine.

the little green light on the old reliable dishwasher, the one that’s scrubbed up after graduations (grade school, high school, college) and christmas and bar mitzvahs (twice), the one that’s worked monday through sunday for a good 13 years, it started to blink incessantly. i tried every trick in the book but could not get the blinking to cease. so i looked it up in that all-purpose answer box, the internet, and discovered the blink that won’t stop is short for “call the repairman.” so i did.

when he arrived in the depth of the latest cold snap, the kind man with the toolbox asked for the instruction manual (not so sure it’s a very good sign when the repairman wants to check the manual). that’s what led me to the cobwebby corner of the basement, where one creaky file drawer led to another and suddenly i was staring at a row of neatly filed manila envelopes, each one bearing my scribble. each one with a label of sorts: “bk beginning,” “+BDK msgs,” “memories — BAM/BK.”

this certainly wasn’t the clue to how to work the dishwasher, but i was decidedly sidetracked there in the dark in the basement. i reached for the stash titled “memories,” and out slid a slice of my long-ago past.

the very first thing i found, in a crisply typed envelope addressed to me at the chicago tribune, was a letter from one of the loveliest priests that ever there was. a long lean gray-bearded runner with the gentlest dark-blue eyes, an irishman who walked about the neighborhood in his irish cable-knit sweater, doffing his irish-wool cap and pausing to  listen to all sorts of sidewalk confessions. father fahey was his name, father john fahey, and the letter i held in my hands, the letter he’d typed in april of 1989, it literally, was a letter that would change my life.

not too many weeks before he’d written the letter, that gentle-souled priest had answered the door of the rectory, and ushered in me and the tall bespectacled fellow i’d fallen in love with. the one who was decidedly jewish, and not at all sure what to do with an irish catholic — this one, in particular. we’d knocked on the rectory door because we were looking for answers, looking for a way for a jew and a catholic to begin a journey we never wanted to end. we had an inkling that we’d found in each other something we might have always been looking for. except for the part where i was catholic and he was jewish. that twist in the narrative plot was making it tangled.

we knew father john to be wise, the sort of soft-spoken fellow to whom you could bring your worries and woes. so we climbed the grand winding staircase behind him, and sat ourselves down across from his armchair, up in his study at the top of the stairs. father john listened. and spoke only three words: “follow your bliss,” he told us, as if a buddhist koan we were to decipher. we’d climbed to the top of the priestly stairs to be handed a three-word instruction.

well, then.

we tucked those words snugly into our pockets and chit-chatted just a little bit longer. then we left and, some weeks later, the letter arrived. paper-clipped to the letter was the “business card” of another priest (do priests have business cards? well, in this case, in the case of a priest who always claims “i’m in the god business,” a business card it was).

gentle john the priest wrote that i should “take [my] love for Blair, and [my] search for God into [my] heart, and patiently, prayerfully wait for the answer to come.”

and then, in the very next paragraph, he typed: “God may be responding immediately.”

holy cow! that is some service!

father john then proceeded to tell me that he’d just bumped into a priest who happened to mention that he’d pulled together a group, “jews and catholics, who are living through the religious test which their love presents.”

“i think that some are married,” father john wrote, “some are thinking of marriage. i immediately thought of you, and so i asked for the priest’s card.” call him, he tells me.

and so i do, i do call the priest with the business card, and the tall bespectacled one and i knock on his rectory door. and he, too, ushers us in, and sits us down in chairs, and tells us words we’ll never forget: “i’m in the god business. god is love. you’re in love, so how can i help you?”

we explain; he responds: “there’s one God. you both pray to the same God, but you pray in two different languages.” he paused long enough to shoot us a look that meant he meant business. in short order, he shooshed out the door: “go with God and go in love.”

so we did. the priest with the business card has been there all along the way. and so was a rabbi, the one who two years later would marry us (along with another priest, an old friend of the family). they were both there in our tiny back garden, in the days just after 9-11 when the whole world shuddered, but we cradled a newborn baby, and it was the day for the baby’s blessing, which is like a baptism, but it comes in two religions. they were there at two first communions, and two bar mitzvahs. they’ve been there again and again.

and that was 30 years ago. and 31 years ago tonight, the tall bespectacled one walked into my apartment for the very first time. i can still see him rolling up the sleeves of his white brooks brothers button-down. can still see him taking a seat at my tiny circle of a kitchen table, can remember how while i pulled foil-wrapped salmon packets from out of the oven, he told me of a thai soup he’d eaten the night before and how it “was a symphony of flavors.” i remember my ears perked at the description. i remember how something else perked at the rolling up of the sleeves.

i can’t say i’d spent much time before then considering the notion of love at first sight, but i know i felt a thump in my chest that night, almost the minute he walked in the door. and sitting here now at this old, scratched maple table, listening to him pull the carton of milk from the fridge and the special K from the pantry, i can conjure that thump in a heartbeat.

and i gaze over at that letter, the one father john typed, sealed, and slipped into the mail chute all those years ago. and father john is gone now. (by the way, he too followed his bliss, left the priesthood, married a widow (his best friend’s widow), moved to northern california, and died a few years ago…) but his letter, unearthed just this week from the dark of a drawer in the basement, it’s a treasure.

no wonder i saved it.

it saved me.  and us.

happy 31 years to the bespectacled one, though this day does not mark the day that you fell for me. that would come later, months later. i’m the one who counts this day as the very beginning. i knew what i knew when i knew it. in time, you knew it too. 

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the old maple table dressed up for the day of hearts

will you tell a love story? 

taking up the challah challenge

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years and years ago, when my kitchen confidence was far wobblier than it is now, i tried my hand at friday challah baking. i wound up with paddles of braided bread that appeared amphibian and reptilian. there were a couple weeks of challah masquerading as crocodile. challah as lobster, with vengeful claws reaching across the table. my challahs looked anything but edible. my challahs begged for names. and cages.

so i surrendered, bought my weekly challah at the grocery store. but, because it comes only in sizes fit for half a synagogue, we almost always have leftover loaves hardening in the corner. i have a slew of ways to use it: i’ve frozen so many picked-over loaves a peek in our freezer might make you think we eat one and only one foodstuff — challah in varying stages of ice age; i’ve mastered bread pudding and french toast (can do both with my eyes closed); we’ve sliced it for a million saturday PB&Js; and of course our squirrels get a steady diet (i wouldn’t be surprised if our squirrels know the hamotzi, the challah blessing, by now).

and every friday night i’ve sat across the table from that oversized soul-less loaf, and dared myself to take up the challah challenge: “take a deep breath, and a humble packet of baker’s yeast, and see if you can once again find it in yourself to pull two golden braids from the oven, adorn your friday night shabbat table with bread you’ve kneaded and blessed with silent incantations all on your own, start to finish.”

yesterday, in full trial mode, i dove in. i am here to tell you that instant yeast is nothing to be afraid of. (this declaration is nothing short of revolutionary for a girl who grew up in a house where yeast was spoken of in hushed tones, as if a living-breathing creature that might wreak uncharted havoc if not treated kindly and gently enough. and, yes, my mother baked bread often in those radical suburban ’70s, so the misappropriation of fear and loathing is all my own. she is hereby declared innocent of that particular quirk of mine. now pie crust, that’s another story….)

i turned once again to the step-by-step instructions of my challah-baking friend and long-ago ally, henry, who with his family had escaped nazi germany, and who regaled me with tales of his mama’s friday baking and her magnificent golden braided loaves back in the old country, before all was shattered. though the pages now have yellowed, i found henry’s instruction clear and encouraging as ever, as i pulled his three stapled sheets from my cookery file, and followed along, triumphant at each and every stage. because i was baking challah on a thursday, there was something of an experimental air to the whole shebang. didn’t matter if i flubbed it. didn’t matter if it never rose (though i would have felt my heart deflate right along with the lack of yeasty rise).

and i was all but jubilant when, at quarter to three, i pulled from my wobbly old oven (it gets as hot or warm as it’s inclined on any given day, paying no mind to the faded numbers on the oven dial), two sturdy loaves. two loaves studded with sesame and poppy, onion bits and garlic, too (i had bagel topping in the pantry and figured it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle with abandon — i was later informed to ditch the bagel topping, “this isn’t a bagel, mom,” and go the purist route: sesame or poppy, not both, not ever again).

i’m hardly exaggerating to declare my two loaves adorable. (see photo above!) after admiring abundantly, the taste-testers dove in. besides the plea to ditch the bagel-y topping, there came a request to please make it “eggier.” i’ve already consulted “the bread baker’s apprentice,” written by the master of bread, peter reinhart, aka brother juniper. he’s got a roadmap riddled with eggs — two whole + two yolks, and a host of other instructions besides.

so next week it’s challah 2.0, and i’ll keep at it till i’ve mastered these doughy batons. not long ago i met a woman who bakes like a fiend and, come friday afternoons, she piles her back seat with challahs galore, and drives and delivers to a circle of loved ones numbering into the 20s. i’d like that. imagine myself, pewter hair flapping out the driver’s side window, as i steer my station wagon — aka the challah mobile — hither and yon, flinging loaves as i go.

it’s all part of a scheme to infuse more intentionality into my days. to conquer those wee quirky fears, the ones that stand in the way of the bigger more daunting ones. slay a little dragon, and perhaps you muster the muscle to take on the giants. and in the meantime it quiets my fridays, ushers in the holiness of shabbat in the hours when i’m alone. i know enough of the meditative calm that comes with kneading and waiting, waiting and punching down dough, waiting some more. to bring to the table a loaf, blessedly braided, a loaf into which i’ve infused my prayers, a loaf just the right size for the two of us who, henceforth, will be the two main players at our shabbat table, once the youngin shoves off for college. it’s holy, all right. and triumphant besides.

and it sates a hunger of the most soulful kind.

 

a few fun challah facts from my friend brother juniper: garnishing the loaves with seeds, either sesame or poppy, symbolizes the falling of manna from heaven, and the covering of the challah with a cloth as it’s served on shabbat represents the heavenly dew that protects the manna. how lovely is that? so lovely.

what little dragon might you already have slain, or determined to slay, in this blessed new year, a chance to rise again?

season of stillness

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not so many years ago, my writing room at this time of year took on north-pole proportions: spools of ribbon, bags of this and that to slip inside other bags or boxes, layers and layers of tissue papers, itty-bitty cards. lists abounded. i was a walking-talking maker and checker of lists.

not so much these days. and not because i’m scrooge.

simply because the sanctity of stillness is what i’m after in this season of deepening darkness. i punctate the night — the shroud of black that grows with every passing whirl around the sun — with my litany of sacramental simplicities.

the dawn is longer, blessedly, giving me more time to stitch those hours with the fine few invitations to bring in what’s hushed, what’s holy. i scoop my old tin coffee can with fat black seed, slide my toes into clunky boots, my arms in puffy sleeves. as the shock of morning cold splashes up against me, i fill my lungs with one quick gulp. then i march across the frozen stiff blades of grass, the mud that’s now succumbed into icy form, and perk my ears to hear the flutter of a wing, the rustling of a bough. i pause to scan the heavens, count the stars, spy the fraction of the moon. i’ve written a thousand times of how i make like i’m a farmer filling my trough, as i pour the seed in the feeder high above my head, stretching my arm far as it will stretch, raising up on tippy-toes, too. i’ve come to realize that the rush of pouring seed must be a call to all the birds, akin to “coffee’s on, come and get it!”

on the stillest mornings, the holiest ones, a cardinal or a junco might flutter in before i’ve stepped away. as if the gentle creature knows we’re in communion here.

perhaps i’ve learned, in my years — now three decades — of braiding jewish threads with catholic ones, to sanctify time, even more than place. abraham joshua heschel, whom i count among my constellation of north stars, writes: “judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” he goes on to draw out that point: “the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the romans nor the germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate…”

point, well taken. point, deeply taken.

i consecrate the holy hours — the ones of dawn and dusk and deepest night.

and so, this season is no longer a mad dash, but a countercultural adventure in stitching in stillness. in simply kindling light, one by one, an arithmetic of brightening, night after night, as both menorah and advent wreath burn against the darkness. our house is not filled with shiny boxes. santa’s list is not an annual exercise in accumulation. hanukkah at our house is brisket + latkes + jelly-filled donuts on the first night, candles and dreidels each night after that.

year by year, i dial down the noise, and amplify the hush that ushers in the stillness.

how do you consecrate your holy hours?

improbably, the prayer shawl

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a triptych of prayer shawls: three generations wrapped in sacred thread

it’s as if the voice calls to me from an ancient canyon, a hallowed space carved through time and history. the history of this perpetually-spinning planet and its holy peoples, and, now, the history that is mine, carved across the years.

i yearn to wrap myself in the folds of the prayer shawl. to cloak my shoulders, burrow my arms, to bend my knees and bow down in the way i have long watched my prayerful beloved. a part of me, yes, aches to be enfolded, to feel the soft threads against my bare skin, but more against my heart. to be swept into the incantations of long ago and forever. to confess and call out to the God who is Avinu Malkeinu, “loving parent, Sovereign of our souls,” in the translation of our synagogue’s new prayer book.

i immerse myself in this span of holy time — the days of awe, rosh hashanah, the jewish new year, through to yom kippur, the day of deepest atonement — as if a tide pool that washes over and through me. it’s at once a cleanse and elevation, a surrender to another key, a frequency and melody and language that carries me to another plane. an otherworldly plane.

and yet, it’s one that comes on and through the worldliest of channels: the trip to the butcher shop, the spice jars pulled from the shelves. the chopping and stirring at the kitchen counter. the strolling through the garden, cutting stems to tuck in wide-mouthed jars and pitchers strewn across the table. the gathering of pomegranates, apples, acorns — sweet fruits of the new year, blessed offerings of the season of sacred bounty.

i have always loved the whole-body immersion of judaism, the ancient call to prayerfulness, the stories set in desert and dry land, the image of the sacred quenching that comes through the oasis, the raining down of sustenance from heaven, the voice that calls out, unseen but deeply heard.

these days i seem to be wrapping myself in all sorts of unfamiliar sacred threads, in threads finer-grained in their unfamiliarity, because their language is new to me, the constructions of sentences, the word choice, the tales they choose to tell. i’ve been going all summer to a just-past-dawn service in an episcopal chapel, one presided over and preached by women. wise women. soulful women. women priests.

it is a soul-stirring thing in the landscape of religion to walk into an unfamiliar place, to listen to the unfolding of an unfamiliar script, to feel each word and gesture as if new (because to me it is new). and thus to feel it so deeply fully.

it’s the element of exposure. the eyes-open willingness to surrender. to submit to that which by definition is foreign, uncharted, able to come up and grasp you, unsuspecting. nothing’s dulled; it’s all bristling, and stands at full alert. you never know what might be around the next bend. and thus you enter wide-eyed, scanning. catching every shift and nuance, passing through the sieve of your soul as if the first rinse.

so it’s always been for me in the folds of judaism, the religion i’ve stepped into because my heart and soul pulled me toward this man who is my beloved, my much-tested companion on this long journey called our married life. i feel it wholly because it’s new to me in so many ways, and now, 30 years after i first stepped — quaking — into my then-beau’s synagogue, its refrains come washing over me with decades of resonance. i find my place, i pull familiar threads round my shoulders, taut against my heart. i am cloaked and covered, kept safe, and free to burrow deep inside, to pore over the holy text, to consider prayers and, most of all, the image of the God who puts pause to the mad dash of the everyday. who awaits our urge to surrender. to bow down and pay attention. to hold high the sanctified blessing of the gifts that abound at the cusp of this new and holy year.

in the cry of the shofar, the coiled ram’s horn that calls out the new year. in the minor chords that rise up from our soul’s deepest depths. in the warm notes of spices saved for now. and in the prayers unfurled in each day of the days to come…..

i find my shelter and my refuge, my call to courage, and the certain whisper of the Most Holy. here, in the soft folds and sacred threads, i pull the prayer shawl round my shoulders. improbably, i tumble toward my heart’s deepest resonance.

l’shanah tovah u’metukah — may it be a good and sweet new year…

have you ventured into a sacred landscape that at first was unfamiliar, and did it sharpen all your senses, and draw you deeper into some universal understanding, some fine-grained sense of holy truths? 

p.s. my friday mornings these days include a drive to the far side of this little town to drop my sweet boy off at the faraway high school campus where he is shepherding the new freshmen into their high school adventures. this puts a bit of a pause in my morning writing, and thus delays its arrival in your mailbox, if you’re one who receives this by e-post. apologies for the delay, but this is my last chance, my last year, of dropping my sweet boy at the schoolhouse door, and i am relishing every drop of it. (even the days when we are running late and i am not quite as “chill” as he wishes me to be….)

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.