Posts Tagged ‘Rachel Barenblat’

Without Ceasing

November 22, 2011 6 comments

by Rachel Barenblat

The wash of dawn across the sky
reveals your signature.

Cicadas drone your praise
through the honey-slow afternoon.

The angular windmills on the ridge
recite your name with every turn.

And I, who can barely focus on breath
without drifting into story:

what can I say to you,
author of wisteria and sorrel,

you who shaped these soft hills
with glaciers’ slow passage?

You fashioned me as a gong:
your presence reverberates.

Help me to open my lips
that I may sing your praise.

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Rachel Barenblat was ordained as a rabbi in January of 2011, on the same day that her book 70 Faces — a collection of poems arising out of conversation with Torah — was published by Phoenicia Publishing. She holds an MFA from Bennington and is author of four previous chapbooks of poetry. Since 2003 she has blogged as the Velveteen Rabbi; she lives in western Massachusetts with her husband and their son, and serves Congregation Beth Israel as their rabbi.

Categories: Worship Tags:


March 12, 2010 2 comments

by Rachel Barenblat


Tradition calls
for parchment, stuff
capable of surviving
stitches made from
tendons and glue.

The body too
is a scroll, scribed
in circles. Everyone bears
marks, the pressure
of sharpened quills.

What words
will the doctors read?


Flakes and cracks
make me itch to touch,
fingers craving contact
with the rough stuff
of weathered wall.

Tethered by tubes,
monitor crying out
each time I unplug,
I want to trace the ceiling
with my bare hands.

This too-smooth room
says nothing to me.


Remarkable, the way
the senses adjust. Even
this curtained wall, these
vague and unseen voices,
begin to shine.

Look how a hint of fringe
makes every blanket
a prayer shawl.
Blood pressure cuff
a kind of tefillin,

binding heaven to earth
with every heartbeat.


Half-sleep is the most
one can hope for. Try to doze
when they dim the lights.
Let your breathing mimic
marbled cloud, sea-washed sand.

Something sharp protrudes,
leaving long shadows
in every direction. The prick
of needle shifting. But
there’s beauty in the sheen

of glass, like ice
in sunlight, gleaming.


Everything’s hazy.
Always the possibility
of precipice,
and no chance to make
a practice run.

But my liturgy, praise
offered or neglected:
for that I can mix
my own blend of ink,
probe the whole spectrum.

There’s always more
outside the frame.

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Rachel Barenblat is a student in the ALEPH rabbinic program who’s been blogging as The Velveteen Rabbi since 2003. Author of 4 chapbooks of poems (most recently chaplainbook, hospital chaplaincy poems published by Laupe House Press, 2006, and the self-published Through, a collection of miscarriage poems, 2009) she lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband and cat. She gave birth to her first child in December.

Categories: Health Tags:


September 30, 2007 1 comment

“Morning Star,” by Rachel Barenblat

The alarm at 5am is obnoxiously loud, breaking the stillness of night, and it’s all I can do not to curse as I fumble for it in the dark of my unfamiliar room. My heart is racing by the time I manage to silence it.

I shower, murmuring the blessing for God Who revives the dead, and then I walk slowly through the retreat center, stopping every few feet to tip my head back and gawk at the stars.

As people arrive at the gazebo, Rabbi Jill Hammer starts us singing “Let the way of the heart shine through.” We don’t all know the song, and our voices are shaky. Slowly they gain strength.

According to Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve were the first to notice and mark the solstices and equinoxes. They saw the sun slowly disappearing, and feared the world was ending. But when it became clear that it was not, they said, “ah — this is the way of the world,” and rejoiced. The autumn equinox is our chance to celebrate the shift toward darkness, into the dream-time. In the coming days we’ll read the opening portion of the Torah, cycling back to the start of our narrative again. This is the season to hear our oldest stories.

The chant we sing as we walk outside names all of us as holy. Holy is the darkness and holy is the light. The darkness is palpable; the air feels as thick as water. We kneel and place our foreheads on the dewy grass, touching the earth who sustains us, who spins and orbits, whose gravity holds us close. My feet are wet and cold, and my knees, and my face. My fingers tangle in the earth’s wet hair.

We light a pair of braided candles, flashes of light in the darkness. One of them refuses to ignite, and as someone struggles with the lighter we sing about earth and heavens, fire and water. As the sky begins to lighten and the stars to vanish, a long shofar blast rings out over the lake, echoing across the mountains. The moment of equinox, sun crossing the equator on the day when light and dark are perfectly balanced.

Pomegranates, Reb Jill says in the dark dusk, are ripe now in the land of Israel. We eat them on Rosh Hashanah, wishing each other that our creativity and our blessings be as plentiful as their seeds. Of course, the pomegranate is also the fruit from which Persephone ate when she descended into the dark mysteries of the underworld. And how do we know when one is ripe? Because when it is ready to be eaten, it bursts. We are standing around in the darkness waiting for something to burst. I almost giggle.

We make havdalah, a ritual of separation between one thing and the next. We bless the sweet spice of rosepetals, the fire of our candles, and the very work of creation. One by one we process beneath the prayer shawl held aloft, like a wedding canopy: our border into autumn. We blow out the candles, and I realize we can see each others’ faces now without the flame. The colors of the world are returning — our tradeoff for losing access to the night stars.

One last shofar blast and we are done. We hug and thank one another. People walk away in clusters, talking, heading for cups of coffee or morning meditation. As I sit silently and watch the sky begin to pink, a flock of wild Canada geese takes flight, their calliope chorus of honks like a dozen shofarot ringing out into the pregnant air of dawn.

by Rachel Barenblat

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Categories: Making Sense Tags:

Facing Impermanence

June 11, 2007 3 comments

From Velveteen Rabbi, April 13, 2005

The call came as I was nursing a mug of tea. The woman on the other end of the phone — I’ll call her D — is a fellow congregant at CBI. We’re both poets, both interested in midrash, so we’ve moved in similar circles for years, though I wouldn’t call us close. She and her husband run our chevra kadisha, the group of volunteers which mindfully prepares the bodies of those who have died for burial. They’re always looking for volunteers, and at my first synagogue board meeting Jeff urged us to consider joining them. He observed that in our tradition this is the most sacred work one can do, a final act of respect towards someone who cannot conceivably repay it.

At the time, I was oddly tempted to volunteer. Though I’m comfortable with impermanence in theory, in practice it’s difficult for me, and meeting death face-to-face seems like a way of accustoming myself to the koan that lives end. What does it mean to be embodied, yet more than our bodies? What becomes of us when our bodies die? What does it mean to be holy in the face of finality and loss? These are some of the biggest questions I know, and serving on the chevra kadisha seemed like an opportunity to learn. But in the end, I didn’t offer my assistance. I wasn’t sure I was ready. I wasn’t sure I had time. I let my excuses get in the way.

Until yesterday morning, when the phone rang. An elderly lady in our congregation had died, and D was looking for volunteers to help prepare her body, at 5:30, right after work. No time to equivocate, no time to postpone. Help was needed that same day. I heard myself ask calmly how long the process usually takes; I reminded D that I’ve never done this before so I would need to be talked through it; and then I said I’d meet her at the funeral home. I hung up the phone not quite believing the conversation had been real. How on earth would I get any work done, knowing that at the end of my workday I was going to have my first encounter with death?


We’re in the middle of a pair of Torah portions which focus on questions of taharah and tumah. After D called I wondered whether God was chuckling at my earnest attempt to come to grips with these issues. “Nu, you want to delve into the nature of purity and impurity?” S/He seemed to be asking. “I’ll give you some taharah to wrestle with!” It’s one thing to contemplate why the Torah tells us that touching a corpse makes one tamei but the act of preparing a dead body for burial is the ultimate act of taharah; it’s another thing to face that reality in an embodied way.

I spent a while surfing the internet, reading the surprising number of essays written about performing taharah. My favorite was by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell, published in Reform Judaism in 2001. It’s called Final Touches, and it’s by turns funny and poignant. (Also excellent, though less personal and more intellectual, is Catherine Madsen’s Love Songs to the Dead, which uses the psalms and prayers recited during taharah as a jumping-off-point for exploring liturgy’s power and what it derives from.)

More than once, during the day, I felt glad that I had woken up early to davven the morning service. I began yesterday wrapped in my prayer shawl and tefillin, asserting my intention to spend the day mindful and thankful, awake and alive. It seemed likely that I would need that grounding as evening approached.

For a woman of thirty, I’m absurdly fortunate. I’ve lost grandparents, but I’ve never had to deal directly with death that came as a shock or seemed profoundly unfair. And until last fall, when my husband’s grandmother passed away, I had never actually seen a dead body. Jewish tradition teaches that the body of someone who has died must be treated like the sacred vessel that it has been, and pre-funeral practices grow out of the principle of kavod ha-meit, honoring the dead. The neshama, the soul, is believed to linger near the body until interment, and our process of taharah would prepare the body for burial and reassure the soul that its work here is done. Would I be able to face the shell which had once housed a human being?


When evening came, four volunteers were present. All of us are on the synagogue’s religion committee, so we’ve worked together before. We began in the funeral home parlor, perched on a pair of sofas, reading psalms to center ourselves. We prayed that we might see God reflected in the face of the meit, the person whose body we were about to prepare, and also in each others’ faces as we joined in this work. “I’m glad you’re here,” D said as we headed down the stairs to the workroom, and I felt a wash of gladness, too.

The steps of the process are simple. Wash hands (thrice each, as in any ritual hand-washing) and don gloves and aprons. Say a prayer asking the meit to forgive you for any inadvertant offenses or missteps committed during the taharah. Wash the body lovingly with warm cloths. De-glove. Ritually wash hands again, glove up again, and (since we have no mikveh to immerse her in) wash the body with a constant stream of poured water (nine kavim, or three buckets full), repeating, “tehorah hee” (“She is pure”) together. Dry her. Dress her in handstitched white linen: trousers, an undershirt, an overshirt, a tie around the waist. Sprinkle sand from the Mount of Olives on her eyes, then don the facecloth and bonnet. Tie every set of strings so that the loops form a letter shin, representing Shaddai, a name of God. Place her in a simple pine box, on a white linen sheet, and wrap the sheet over her before closing the box.

I felt strangely calm throughout. It was strange, seeing a body with no soul in it; stranger still to wash her, an act that seemed impossibly intimate; but I was okay. I felt an outpouring of tenderness, occasionally giving in to the impulse to stroke her hair or her arm, thinking, “it’s okay, dear. We’re here. You’re okay.” Now and again my mind supplied me with moments of irreverence, as when I glanced into the coffin (which must contain nothing artificial, so it was lined with fine curly wood shavings) and thought of the straw nests in which etrogim
are shipped from Israel. The four of us moved around the steel gurney like a team of surgeons, handing each other washcloths and towels, turning her body to wash and dry what we couldn’t easily reach. Her hands were clenched but her feet were beautiful, and her round belly. I wondered if she had borne children.

Jewish burial garments are the same for everyone, a reflection of our fundamental equality in the eyes of God. The trousers are sewn shut at the bottom, so they concealed her feet; the sleeves of the shirts were long enough to wrap over the tips of her fingers. The sand we trickled onto her eyelids was pale and golden, and somehow that was the moment when the irreversibility of the process hit me. It reminded me of the morning blessing praising God Who removes sleep from our eyes and slumber from our eyelids. Some say the Jerusalem sand is used so that the first thing she “sees” in the World to Come will be the soil of the holy land, but to me it felt like we were providing the flipside to that morning blessing. In this embodied life we thank God for opening our eyes; now we were marking the closing of her physical eyes. Maybe her neshama no longer needed eyes to see.

We placed a linen cloth over her face, and tied the bonnet on, and then she was a bundled white human-shaped figure: no features, no distinguishing marks, only legs and arms, a torso and a head, a small still white figure. A little awkwardly we lifted her and placed her atop the white sheet we had laid over the plain pine box, and wrapped the sheet over her, and then, suddenly, out of the blue, I was shaking with silent tears. I leaned on the edge of the coffin of a woman I had never known, and understood what we had done for her, and wept and wept.

My three chevre clustered around me and hugged me. We maintained the silence we had held throughout (we spoke only when we needed cues for lifting or moving her, and when we were taking turns pouring the unceasing stream of water that sufficed in place of mikvah immersion), and after a few minutes I stood straight and peeled off my gloves and apron, and we closed the box, and we hugged again, and then we walked away.

Tying the special shin-shaped knot was tricky (only one of we four had any facility with it). As we left the funeral home, one of my fellow chevra members — a young great-grandmother, but older than me by a long shot — turned to me and said, “When it’s me on that table, don’t worry about the knots!” We laughed, then, all four of us, and even though my face was still wet I felt good. Amazingly it was still light out when we left the funeral home (only an hour and a half had passed) and I felt dazed, a little giddy, as I headed towards my car. The evening was still and luminous, just barely warm enough for birdsong.


I can’t say I came away understanding life and death. I can’t say it was easy. But it seems right that we do this for one another. At Jewish funerals, mourners cast at least a symbolic handful of dirt onto the coffin: a final task we can perform for each other, a way of showing that we take care of our own, a way of reaching closure. Being a part of the chevra kadisha is like that, just a lot more intense. We rely on each other, in the end.

Incarnation is a mystery. What we are, how we can be simultaneously holy-and-embodied (I thank God every morning for the miracle of my body) and holy-beyond-our-bodies (I thank God every morning for my neshama, my soul, calling it pure in the exact same words the members of a chevra kadisha will someday use to sanctify my body), is not something I can intellectually understand. But I know that I want to honor the whole journey, and that birth and death are points of contact with this great thing I cannot entirely grasp.

Death scares me. Not that I will someday die, but that those I love will die, that I will lose access to the people who shape my world. And I will. We all do. And that’s okay, it’s the rules of the game. Even now people mourn the woman whose body I washed and dressed and blessed last night, and in performing this mitzvah I connected myself with all of her mourners. With everyone doing those tasks all around the world. With the people who washed and shrouded the bodies of my ancestors, and the people who will sanctify the bodies of my children.

As a poet I fear the lapse from sentiment into sentimentality, and I’m not sure how to talk about this without sliding into cliché. Clearly this had a strong impact on me; I dreamed last night that I was back in the basement room of the funeral home again today, preparing to do this duty again. (The dream depicted an impossible situation: a mixed-gender chevra, which included a young male Buddhist monk in burgundy and saffron robes. Make of that what you will.) But here’s what I know: there is nothing scary about touching a dead body. Doing so is human, and comforting, and sad.

It’s good that D’s call came out of the blue. I didn’t have time to dream up excuses, or to second-guess my assent. I was needed, and I stepped up, and the experience was deep enough that it kept me in the moment. And now I know that I can do this. It’s strange and difficult, but it’s also powerful. We’re a small community; we celebrate a lot more simchas than we do losses. But I’m a part of my synagogue’s chevra kadisha now. It’s like being on a volunteer fire department. I don’t have to be there every week, it’s not a regular part of my life. But next time the need arises, they can call on me. And now when I pray the words of the amidah which praise God Who keeps faith with us beyond life and beyond death, they’ll mean something new to me. I’m not sure I understand them, but that’s okay.

by Rachel Barenblat

Last week of the farm

February 6, 2007 2 comments

The herb gardens: gone.
Only sage remains, adrift
in a sea of soil and hay.
In the fields, dark rippled kale
overlooks a fuzz of winter rye.

Crows scatter from the squash
smashed atop the compost pile
as I approach. The mountains
are turning purple, turning pale,
leaves fallen.

It’s hard not to feel sorrow.
Even these sheep, looking up
from their salt lick to nose
a green tomato, are destined
for slaughter…

But look at the farmer’s house.
On a tall extension ladder
he tapes windows. Soon
seed catalogues will trickle
into the mailbox like rain.

by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi

Categories: Come Outside Tags:


December 15, 2006 4 comments


The first time I set foot in Prague I was eighteen and confusing to my companions. One moment I was guileless, enchanted by everything; the next, surly and closed-off as only a college student can be. This is, I imagine, how my mother remembers it, although I have never asked her. Probably when she recalls that trip, she remembers not my fluvial changes of mood, but her own emotional landscape. That was her parents’ last trip before their decline set in, which must have given her plenty to deal with even without my mercurial temperament.

Thirteen years later, as I prepared to return for a long weekend, I tried to remember as much as I could about that first trip. I called up a few images: cobblestone streets, the thick medieval walls of the Staronova Shul, the horse-and-rider statue in Wenceslas Square. My great-aunt on the Charles Bridge beneath one of the religious statues, a figure of Jesus whose golden crown popped out against the soot-darkened and streaky stone.

I squeezed memory of a few sensations from poems, one which compared the sunrise seen from the airplane enroute to Prague to jam spread on toast, and one which offered woodsmoke and mushroom soup and the sound of Czech folksongs.

For more than this, I turned to my journal – but my interior monologue offers mostly glimpses of me. There are pages of musings on my eagerness to return to school, mixed with anxiety about how the campus would feel with my boyfriend gone to Accra. I described my bafflement at my cousins, approximately my age but different from me in a dozen ways that seemed critical at the time. I chronicled my profound exasperation at all the places where my mother and I failed to connect. But I wrote surprisingly little about where we went or what we saw, or how the voyage felt while it was unfolding.

Even the treasure-trove of letters to Ethan written on Hotel Intercontinental stationery, which I never sent but instead tucked into the back cover of the book, say more about being eighteen than about being in the Czech Republic. A place in time I can’t revisit.

Here is what I know. My first time in Prague I liked the oldest synagogues, and the two cemeteries we visited. One was a jumble of stones eleven layers deep. The other, where my great-grandparents are buried, was serene and austere. It reminded me of Pere Lachaise, where three years previously I had made a kind of pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave. (I don’t know now what I was looking for there amid the stubbed-out joints and graffiti, but I remember the elation of sneaking out of the hotel with my high school best friend. We fooled our chaperone that we had run off in search of “female products,” a fib that sent us into gales of laughter for days.) I liked the ability to order tall glasses of crisp Pilsner, still forbidden to me in the States.

That’s what I’ve got. Synagogues and headstones and beer. Whatever else I liked and disliked about Prague, whatever else might have moved or surprised me, just isn’t what I chose to record.

This time, I kept a detailed journal of every impression I could scribble. The restaurant we ventured into, our first jet-lagged morning there, and our laughter when we realized that our Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t include a section of useful restaurant phrases. The bright red street carts in Wenceslas Square which sell sausages and hot spiced wine. The unexpected chance to tour Parliament, which is open on weekends and is adorned everywhere with frescoes. How it felt to stand in the light rain and watch the famous clock in Old Town Square at noon, when the little windows opened and the procession of clockwork apostles whirled slowly by.

What I’m still not sure how to chronicle is the sense I had, sometimes — fleetingly, and never in the places where I was expecting it — that my grandparents were making the journey with me again. 1993 was their last time in Prague, and already their sense of place was failing. I remember overhearing my mother tell my aunt that their parents had gotten lost on the way out of the hotel restaurant, unable to find their room. They weren’t always present on our family trip: sometimes they were caught in earlier days, confused by the disjunction between then and now. I didn’t fully understand that at the time, because I wasn’t fully present, either. I was wrapped-up in my own dramas. Mindfulness wasn’t high on my list when I was eighteen.

But when Ethan and I went for a hot spiced wine on our one Saturday night in Old Town Square — rolling our eyes at the guitarist playing Bob Marley and Beatles tunes, settling in beneath the outdoor space heaters that mark the few sidewalk cafés still open in this season — it seemed to me that my grandparents might once have done the very same thing. Sat at an outdoor table in November, fingers curled around mugs of hot wine, and laughed a little at the tourists, and enjoyed each others’ company in the cold nighttime Prague air. It is possible my parents did something like this too, on their first trip together to Prague. It is possible my children will do the same.

That’s what I was really looking for: a sense of the generations unfolding, a kind of connection with my parents and my grandparents who each, in their own time, walked the old city’s nubbly streets. I didn’t find it at the old synagogues, monuments to a decimated community, Judaism under glass. I can’t recapture it from the one time when I was really there with my mother and my grandparents. But in a few ineffable moments on my second trip to Prague, that feeling of connection rose in me like early-morning mist on the Vltava. Shivery and palpable, and then indescribable, gone.

by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi

Categories: First Time Tags:


October 16, 2006 2 comments

Just last week
I wrestled expectations
to the ground again.

Today I’ve added
eleven lines of verse
to the bank account,

stitched a single quilt
from sheaves
of disparate sources:

page of Talmud
thick with Rashi-script
nestled beside the koans

of a Zen poet
whose brush
spills only virtual ink.

Even in the way
Hebrew letters

there’s a lesson
about how to reveal
our true faces.

by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi

Categories: Education Tags:

Chevra kadisha

July 16, 2006 6 comments

It used to startle her, how cold an uninhabited body is.

But she can’t help the wave of tenderness that comes when she passes a warm washcloth over breast and belly. Everyone succumbs to the impulse to whisper a word of comfort as the stream of water pours.

Sand makes it real. These eyes won’t open again, not here.

Wrapped in white, the body looks smaller. She’s always startled that it isn’t weightless when they lift it and place it in its nest of wood curls, like a precious etrog with a long way to travel before the holiday comes.

by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi

Categories: Short Shorts Tags:


May 16, 2006 5 comments

The priests
in their white coats
broach the inner sanctum,
the holiest of holies
of the human heart

sacrifices blemished
with sutures, the yellow
wash of antiseptic.
Contact with the mystery
pumping through us

changes them
in ways the rest of us
(even the shepherds)
can’t understand.
How can we know

when it’s time
to tug on the thread
and reel them back
to the tiled corridors
we nightly walk?

Written by Rachel Barenblat, author of chaplainbook.


January 18, 2006 16 comments

Seventeen years in your house
makes it strange to have you
in mine, heels of your fine
polished shoes clattering
against my New England floors.

I want so badly to please you
that the countertops ache
from repeated scrubbing.
Fresh flowers on every table,
water in the carafe by the bed.

By tomorrow we’ll argue
politics again, each stunned
by the unconsidered policies
the other promotes, but
let me enjoy today to its fullest.

I marvel that you are with me.
Your aftershave and your cigar smoke,
they comfort me. Surely
your voice will be with me
all of the days of my life.

By Rachel Barenblat of
Velveteen Rabbi

Categories: Finding Home Tags:
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