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.

The Next Abraham

motherhood-by-barbara-w-on-flickrA few days ago, I was blessed to be present at my grandson Abraham’s bris, his ritual circumcision. The mohel, the rabbi who officiated at and performed the circumcision, explained to the family and friends gathered for the ceremony, explained that a bris is the way God signs God’s name on a Jewish male baby.

The day before the bris, women marched in solidarity all around the country and the world. Baby Abraham’s father, his uncle on his father’s side, and his oldest brother participated in the march in New York. So did the baby Abraham’s aunt on his mother’s side, uncle, and five-month-old niece. They were joined by baby Abraham’s stepmother on his mother’s side.

My wife, baby Abraham’s maternal grandmother, the baby’s biological grandfather on his mother’s side, and I stayed home with the newborn and his mother. At just a week old, baby Abraham was still too young to be taken to the march. And his mother was still recovering from the delivery. Had Abraham been a month or more old, I’m sure we all would have joined the rest of the family on the march. .

Everyone knows what happened on Friday January 20, the day before the women’s march.

It was a charged moment to witness the circumcision of a baby, marking the moment he ritualistically joined the Jewish people’s covenant with God. It was a charged moment to welcome a baby to the Divided States of America.

But this bris in particular was a deep moment of union, a moment that, for those present and for all those who will, God willing, get to know Abraham as he grows, marked, in its quiet way, a mending of the nation, even the world. This bris marked a moment of joining in love parts of the world that some would keep apart by instilling in us fear of certain others, by dividing the world simplistically, dangerously into friends and enemies. [Read more…]

A Song of Songs for These American Days

highway 61 by H. Michael Karshis on flickrWith thanks and apologies to the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, Neil Young, Wallace Stevens, Bruce Springsteen, the Wailin’ Jennys, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, God, Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Sam Baker, The Band, Bruce Cockburn, The Grateful Dead, Richie Havens, and all the musicians and poets who have sustained and nourished me to this day.

I read the news today. Oh boy.

They’re sealing the cracks in the ceiling. Now how’s the light going to get in?

A friend on the left says these days her husband stands guard at the door to their home, his life a loaded gun.

Another friend on the left says, if it comes to it, she’ll seek happiness in a warm gun.

Me? I am lying in a burned out basement, calling all angels, but the angels have lost their desire for us. [Read more…]

How Do You Write?

arthur-dove-leaf-forms-spaces-abstract-on-wikimediaDo you write with a pen?

Do you write with the wind?

Do you pray first? Do you pray when you are stuck? Do you pray after? Or are you praying the whole way through?

Do you wait for the singer on the beach or the sinner in the confession booth to finish before you begin? [Read more…]

Traveling Through These Days of Awe

Rick Chess photoI’m in a plane ascending to 37,000 feet.

How restless have I been this year? How easily distractible?

Already on this flight, from the time of boarding the plane until now, I’ve jumped from e-mail to Facebook to FiveThirtyEight to Jane Hirshfield on Basho to Mishkan Hanefesh, Sanctuary of the Soul, the Reform movement’s new high holiday prayer book. Already I’ve skipped from skimming to sinking to expanding to avoiding: I don’t want to look at that e-mail right now. It can wait.

We boarded at around 4 p.m. and maybe it’s around 4:50 p.m. now, and in that brief span of time I’ve registered for a free online course on The Science of Meditation, knowing full well that next week, when the webinar is live, I will have no time to participate but I must participate because I just offered to teach on my own “The Art and Science of Meditation,” a course that I’ve taught with three other colleagues, including a neuroscientist, for the past two spring semesters, and I am going to need all the help I can get with the science part of the course this spring. [Read more…]

Getting Close to You, God: A Meditation During the Month of Elul

by-david-bergin-emmett-and-elliott-on-flickr“You are my light and my help / Whom should I fear?” Thus begins Norman Fischer’s Zen-inspired translation of Psalm 27.

Right now, at this very moment, Shabbat morning, the 14th of Elul, 5776; Sept. 17, 2016, these verses don’t resonate with me. Fear: yes, I am afraid, afraid, at the moment, that I won’t finish this essay by the deadline, two days from now, for my next contribution to “Good Letters.”

Whom do I fear? The “Good Letters” editor, a kind woman and talented writer who generously works with a group of writers for the blog? The editor-in-chief of Image, the extraordinary journal that is at the heart of an equally extraordinary community of writers, artists, musicians whose work engages, one way or another, ultimate questions of “art, faith, and mystery”?

What about the Divine, YHVH, whose commandment to observe the Shabbat I am breaking by writing this piece this morning, is that who I fear? Or is it some internal judge who took up residence within me, probably so early in my life that I can’t remember when. [Read more…]