About Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

Is My Truth Your Truth?

meditationI do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

—Wallace Stevens

 

Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training Program instructions for this month:

“Choose a phrase from Psalm 30 or Hallel to begin and/or end your sitting practice every day. Use the same blessing every day. Memorize it. Notice if it changes your practice, if you recall it during the day, if it inspires awe or connection to life.”

How to choose?

Psalm 30: it’s shorter than Hallel, a section of the Jewish worship service, included on particularly joyous days such as the three pilgrimage festivals, in which all the psalms include the word hallel or the concept of praise. I can read Psalm 30 quickly and see if any verse calls out to me, and, if it does, I can work with that verse this month.

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Girl Meets God in the Classroom, Part 2

Rembrandt-The_return_of_the_prodigal_sonContinued from yesterday.

On the first day of my class “Spiritual Autobiographies: Theirs and Ours,” a few students shared that they weren’t “spiritual people.” Why, I wondered, did they sign up for this elective class?

Some of them, I would learn later in the semester, had been deeply wounded by religion. A few said that religion had been forced on them by their parents.

At this moment of emerging adulthood, it was time to turn away, to turn another way. Neither the students nor I realized, as class began in mid-August, that some of their wounds, whether exposed in speech, writing, or—to anyone paying attention—in silence, would become sites of inquiry and that inquiry itself might begin a process of healing.

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Girl Meets God in the Classroom, Part 1

girlmeetsgodI had used Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God once before in class, an honors freshman colloquium on the theme of metamorphosis of body, heart, mind, and spirit. On the first or second day of discussing the book, comments made by a few students surprised, stunned, and, ultimately, silenced me.

“I wasn’t raised with any religion,” one student said, “so I can’t relate at all to this book.” A couple other students agreed.

We had barely begun exploring the text. We hadn’t gotten to looking at Winner’s experience and understanding of God, who, if not the main character, is one of the book’s two main characters. That’s how I had intended to discuss God—as a character, the same way we’d discuss a fictional character.

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Murder in the Synagogue

20141119-JERUSALEM-slide-6X2A-superJumboWhen I see him, I don’t see Israeli. I see Jew.

Like the other men in the crowd at the police barrier on the sunny day when this photograph was taken, he’s wearing a long black coat, black slacks, and white shirt: the standard attire of an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

A traditional tallis (prayer shawl)—white with black stripes—is draped over his shoulder. The commandment (Numbers 15:38): “The children of Israel…shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments.” One of his long, tightly coiled peyot (earlocks)—”You should not shave the corners of your head,” (Leviticus 19:27)—tapers down the right side of his chest. The other seems to be tossed behind his shoulder. Someone more knowledgeable than I could identify, based on the length and style of his peyot, the ultra-Orthodox sect to which he belongs.

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Trouble Called Again Last Night

Carphone useTrouble called again last Thursday night. The number illuminated in the landline phone’s small window. Mother. She’s eighty-four now. Father’s eighty-seven. They sold their house—where we lived when I was in in high school—about twenty-five years ago. Moved into a condo. They’re still living in the condo, independently.

A few nights earlier, during one of my routine every-other-day-or-so phone calls with her, Mom told me that Dad had a cold. He’d spent most of the day sleeping.

Dad’s a big guy, height and girth, though his impressive belly has deflated considerably over the last few years: a few hospitalizations, a diminished appetite. Though he doesn’t complain about it, he suffers from painful arthritis. With a cane, which he uses reluctantly, he shuffles around the condo, and inches his way from condo to car to restaurant to cardiologist to condo to couch for TV. He hardly has the strength to push himself up from the sofa. Gravity is calling him home.

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