A Jew Prays in Venice, Part 1

In Venice, in the Santa Maria della Salute church, in the presence of Madonna della Salute (Madonna of Health), I sang Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach, Jewish prayer for healing, quietly to myself.

Before entering the area of the church roped off for prayer only, I hesitated. Should a pretty good Jewish boy enter a spaced designated for Catholic worship?

My wife and I were near the end of our first trip to Italy. In the months leading up to the trip, I had been reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, a book I had owned for years but had never read or had read only a little of, probably in my late twenties, and had forgotten.

Grounded in his experiences as a Trappist monk and drawing on his deep interest in Buddhism and other contemplative traditions, Merton’s essays on faith, detachment, egoism, dualism, God, and related topics awakened in me an interest in and openness to Catholicism that I had never before experienced.

“We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God,” Merton writes, “but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God.”

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A Day Wide Enough for Wonder

To recap: my cup of Awake is half empty. What’s left is cooler now than when I poured the water from the kettle over the tea bag dangling at the end of its string about twenty minutes ago.

Next to the mailbox, the trash in its thick plastic green container stands ready to be forked into the garbage truck any time now.

It’s Tuesday morning. It’s the last full week of classes. Finals begin next week, but I’m leaving town in less than a week for a seven day silent Jewish meditation retreat. Before I settle onto my meditation bench, close my eyes, and direct my attention to my breath, there’s work to be done.

Upstairs in my study: twenty-one collage-essays from my poetry students, and fifteen collage-essays and fifteen notebooks from my Holocaust and the Arts students. To be graded today, or today and tomorrow, but I can’t take longer than that because portfolios come in from my poetry students tomorrow—

Because Moogfest 2014 begins tomorrow, because on Thursday night I’m taking my Holocaust and the Arts students to see Aftermath and for pizza afterward, because on Friday I have to turn in my grades for both classes—the registrar will open grading specially for me, a one hour window, and close it again until classes are officially over on Monday—

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New Plagues This Passover

As I write this, Passover is just a little more than a week away. This year, the first night of Passover coincides with our son’s twenty-first birthday. I suspect that, instead of attending a seder (we floated the idea of his coming home from school to be with us for the first seder), he’ll be drinking a beer, his first…legal beer. That’s one loss for halakhah, Jewish ritual law (beer is clearly not kosher for Passover), and one gain for living within civil law.

I don’t think the Passover narrative is of much interest to him, at least not insofar as it tells the story of the Jews. It may be of greater interest to him as it speaks to and inspires other peoples’ national liberation struggles. Still, my wife and I are fairly certain that he, like his sisters, enjoyed our playful, imaginative seders as he was growing up.  Whether we celebrated them in our home or at the homes of our closest friends, we always sought creative ways of keeping the seder fresh and relevant.

Mah nishtana? what makes this night different from all others? the youngest at the table chant. After they finish chanting the traditional four questions, we share our own questions at this particular moment at this particular seder. Question, question, and keep questioning: that’s a Jewish value, embedded in the Passover seder. It’s one of the first things we teach our children: question everything.

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Letter to Stephen Dunn

Dear Steve,

I’ve had to look away for most of three decades now—away from your work.

“Why.” That’s the title of a poem, a poem in your book Here and Now, I read this morning.

“Because you can be sure a part of yourself is always missing,” the poem begins.

When I read your poems now, like when I read them regularly decades ago, when, for a brief time, I was your student, your friend, I discover a part of myself that, if not exactly missing, had been nagging to be recognized, acknowledged, expressed.

“If the imagined woman makes the real woman / seem bare-boned, hardly existent…” you write in “The Imagined,” and I nod, no, not nod, exactly, but soften, warmed by the companionship of a poem that knows me better than most people do, a poem that says what I’ve experienced but would never, could never say aloud.

At thirty-six, Steve, I married. You know this. I visited you once before the wedding. I said, she doesn’t read poetry. We won’t have that to talk about. You can find plenty of people, you said, to talk poetry with.

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Hearing Voices

Let the words find you, you who have been hiding from them for so long.

That’s what I heard, that sentence.

Hear, O Israel: maybe because I’ve said those three words, Hear, O Israel, for as long as I can remember, I listened.

Maybe I was in the shower. Maybe I had just finished listening to a story on Weekend Edition, and I was turning, turning away, turning my attention but my attention hadn’t arrived at what it was seeking, hadn’t landed on what it would rest next. That’s when, in transition, I heard, Let the words find you, you who have been hiding from them for so long.

When I heard the words, I knew to write them down. I knew I would see if they would lead me to my next essay for “Good Letters.” As it turns out, they did. But not without frustrating me when, after a few lively and surprising exchanges between the voice that spoke the initial sentence and “my voice,” that first voice stopped speaking—stopped, I sensed, before our conversation had ended.

Stubborn, determined, impatient, I put words in its mouth. But when I did, I had nothing to say in return.

Finally, humbled, I waited and listened to the silence. Then, in its own words and, as it turns out, in its own good time, it spoke again.

Hear, O Israel. I’m listening. Where are you? Here I am.

And here, yes, here, is our conversation:

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