Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fancy a grasshopper?

No grasshopper?  What about a locust, then?  A cricket, perhaps?  Me, neither.  And why the heck am I even talking about insects, anyhow?  Well, I’m glad you’re thinking about that!  It’s not a conversation I expected to take up before breakfast, that’s for sure.

I’m participating in a most awesome project, in which women and men, Jews and Gentiles, each commit to needlepoint 4 verses of Torah onto a piece of fabric, which will be returned to the artist who conceived it, Temma Gentles.  She will have all those individual pieces of work stitched into a massive Torah scroll, which will be exhibited publicly.  You can read lots more about that here: - and you can also sign up to participate.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the insects.  The reason I’m thinking about them is that this week, I received word of my 4 verses for the project.  Temma’s email said that they were from Leviticus.  “Oh,” I thought.  (Leviticus is not one of my favourite books of Torah – it’s very prescriptive and has rules upon rules upon rules.)  And my verses are Lev. 11:20-23.  Here they are, so you don’t have to look them up:

20 All winged swarming things that walk on fours shall be an abomination for you.  21 But these you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground – 22 of these you may eat the following: locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper. 23 But all other winged warming things that have four legs shall be an abomination for you.

To be honest, I was kind of hoping for something more… beautiful, perhaps.  Or profound.  Perhaps something from the Song of Songs – “Ani le dodi, ve dodi li…” (“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”).  Or maybe from Exodus, the Song of the Sea (which my father used to sing, albeit not the melody we use at synagogue), Oz ya shir Moshe…  I just love that one.  But no, I get locusts.  And grasshoppers.  And crickets.  And what am I going to do with this?!

Well, firstly, I am going to honour my commitment, and do the best work I can do at stitching my verses.  That goes without saying, really.
Let me introduce you to some kosher insects.  Below, top to bottom, we have a bald locust, a grasshopper, and a cricket.  I have never had any desire to eat any of them.  Several years ago, I was given a gag gift (and I did kind of gag at it, actually) – a lollipop with a cricket inside.  I couldn’t even lick the candy to taste it.  The ewww factor was way too high!  (But if it had been prepared under rabbinic supervision, it would've been kosher!!)

So here I am with Leviticus and the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary rules).  I’m pretty much ok with them, even though one or two of them cause me to roll my eyes.  I don’t eat pork or shellfish, and I don’t mix meat with dairy (that’s an eye-roller for me, in case you wondered).  My friend Jen says, “Show me a chicken that can give milk, and I’ll stop eating chicken Alfredo!”  I completely get what she’s saying.  Chickens can’t give milk.  And the cheese you have on your hamburger certainly doesn’t come from the same cow that gave you the meat.  My rabbi suggests that perhaps one way to consider it is that by not mixing meat and dairy, we’re not mixing the dead (the meat, obviously) with the living (a cow doesn’t have to die so that we can have cheese).  That makes it a little better, but only a little.  Fortunately, I have no great love of cheeseburgers and am happy with a veggie cheeseburger, so it’s all good.
Because I’m observant, I also don’t eat pork or shellfish, and that’s fine.  Occasionally, I miss some dishes, but generally it’s ok, and I don’t feel especially deprived.  Observant Jews also do not eat snails, though – escargots – not even when they are sautéed in butter, with a bit of garlic, tucked into mushroom caps, and topped with just a soupçon of fine breadcrumbs and cheese and broiled to the perfect moment of golden deliciousness.  Because, you see, I have eaten all these things.  I didn’t start out as an observant Jew.  Not eating pork and shellfish, not mixing meat and dairy – these are changes I have made, and commitments I have made as a Jew.  I don’t think it’s quite the same for someone who has never eaten those things.  And I rather miss escargots.
What if I slip up?!  Seriously!  What if cross-stitching 4 verses of Torah about the things I ought not to eat reminds me so much of the things I’ve given up that I go out and get some escargots?  I am not certain that this could not happen.  It might.  I hope it won’t, but the temptation pops up whenever I smell garlic in a restaurant!  And if I do go ahead and order some escargots, does that invalidate all the work I’ve put into becoming an observant Jew?  Or am I already looking for a loophole?  The commentary in my Eitz Chayim (the book containing Torah readings that we use at synagogue) says, “What is important is to be on the path of observance, to be, in the words of Emet ve-Emunah, a ‘striving’ Jew.”  Well, I’m striving, all right.  But then, I’m always striving. It occurs to me that I shouldn’t be looking at this as a loophole… but… escargots…
I know from having made my own tallit (ritual prayer shawl) that creating a holy object can in itself be a kind of prayer.  In fact, embroidering a tallit turned out to be one of the most profound, most holy, most prayerful things I’ve ever experienced – most particularly when I was tying the tzitzit (the fringes at each of the four corners, that remind us of the mitzvot – the commandments).  I thought that perhaps I would recapture something of that – and maybe even a little more.  Because while I will never be a sofret (a female Torah scribe), I thought that perhaps the feeling of doing this work might be something close to that – it’s certainly as close to writing a Torah as I will ever get.
I had hoped that participating in The Torah Project would help bring me closer to God, and closer to Torah, and found myself a little … disappointed … in the verses I was given.  Disappointed?!  I’m disappointed in Torah?  Well, I’m rather bold, aren’t I?  Every single verse, every single character of Torah, is important.  Are there some that are more important than others?  That’s entirely possible.  Some verses make me incredibly happy, and some of them make me really angry – but whether I am happy or angry, the verses cause me to have a dialogue with God.  Disappointed?!  All verses of Torah are important – but it occurs to me that my disappointment with those verses (not merely with my assignment of those verses – with the verses themselves) is kind of arrogant.  If I am disappointed, maybe I’m missing something.  If I don’t know immediately upon reading these verses why they are important, then it’s high time I blew the dust off my graduate school education and did some exegesis.
While I wait for my fabric and thread to arrive from Toronto, I am going to start looking hard at Leviticus.  The whole book, not just my 4 verses.  I will read it, and study it, and pray over it and with it. I will mine it for meaning, as my professors taught me to do.  I will do midrash.  And when I push the needle through the fabric for the first time, perhaps I will say a Shehechiyanu (Jews have prayers for pretty much everything – including one for the very first time of doing something.  I think that fits here.)
This is a journey, and I’ve barely taken the first step.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel...

It’s said that writing a Torah scroll is for Jews the 613th and greatest commandment. We believe that we are given the direction for this from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 31, verse 19: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.”  In fact, Torah scribes – sofer (or sofret, when we refer to the very small number of women who have written Torah scrolls) ­may dedicate their entire lives to only this work.  Most sofrim are men, not because women are prohibited from becoming ritual scribes (as some believe), but rather, because Maimonides explains that women are not obligated to fulfill this mitzvah.  This is simply because through history, women have been exempt from the mitzvah of studying Torah simply for the sake of studying Torah.  Tradition has dictated that women as the keepers of the home ought to be concerned more with mitzvot that concerned living Jewishly at home - keeping Shabbat in the home, for instance, and lighting candles on Friday evening.

Writing a Torah is a religious act – very nearly a prayer.  The materials on which the scroll is written and the implements used to do the writing are very specific, so that the scroll will be kosher.  The scribe is specially trained, and is expected to approach each letter with great kavanah – mindfulness, or intention – so that the integrity of the finished scroll should be above reproach.

Each letter must be as perfect as the human hand, guided, some say, by God, can make it.  It takes about a year to write one single Torah scroll, consisting of more than 300,000 Hebrew letters, painstakingly calligraphied by hand, and it may in some cases take even longer.  My own Hebrew is poor enough when davening (praying), and so the very thought of ever writing a Torah scroll is not one that has ever held great sway in my mind, as it is so far from the realm of what is possible for me to be confident that it is simply impossible.

Recently, though, I read an article in the Canadian Jewish News (, and suddenly the idea of being a part of creating a Torah scroll didn’t seem quite so impossible anymore.  While I will never become a sofret, I could perhaps be a part of something greater than I, and join this group of people committed to a rather audacious act of art.  I have designed and embroidered both my tallitot (the prayer shawls which accompany me to synagogue, and which I use for daily prayer), and every stich of each of them felt to me like a prayer.  Every stitch felt like a conversation with my mother.  I wanted to know more about this!

I checked out the website ( and contacted them to ask whether it was still possible to join the hundreds of volunteers already committed to the project.  Very promptly, I received an email message from Marilynne Casse, the Executive Coordinator of the project, who explained how it works – and it’s quite simple.  Volunteers complete a short registration form and make a payment of $18 (probably not at all coincidentally – 18 is numerically significant for Jews, as the letters which form the word also make the Hebrew word chai, or life), which nets you a kit that includes the Aida cloth, embroidery floss, and needles required for you to create a 14” x 14” square on which you will cross-stich four verses of the Torah.  In the end, more than 1,400 canvases will have been completed and stitched together to create a Torah scroll that is nine-feet-tall and about 100-yards-long (approximately 3 M by 90 M).  When it is finally completed – probably in about 3 years – the scroll will be the subject of a public exhibition – this in itself will be another tremendous undertaking, as it will require quite a lot of fundraising to accomplish.

The project is the brainchild of textile artist Temma Gentles, who conceived of it while on sabbatical in Israel as a way for people to connect intimately with the words of the Torah.  Volunteers are not required to be Jewish, nor must they be women.  There are women and men of many faith traditions participating, each of whom has particular reasons for wanting to participate.  For me, it is about Torah, yes, but also because every time I embroider something, I feel closer to my mother, who died in 2003, and who taught me to embroider when I was a girl.  I think that she would love this project.

So the next step is to receive my kit, and to begin my part of this project.  From time to time, I’ll post updates – perhaps even with photos.  Right now, I’m going to contact a friend in Israel, who is herself a textile artist, to invite her to check out the website as well, because she might also like to be a part of this.  And perhaps you would, to - so you should go ahead and click that link, and get in touch with the project!


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Trying to be ready for Yom Kippur

In Judaism, confession (Hebrew וידוי, Viddui) is a step in the process of atonement during which a Jew admits to committing a sin before God. In sins between a Jew and God, our confession occurs without others present (The Talmud teaches that confession in front of another is a show of disrespect).  However, confession pertaining to sins done TO ANOTHER JEW is permitted publicly, and we make this confession on the morning of Yom Kippur (in fact, we make this confession several times on Yom Kippur – and when we do so mindfully, it’s a profound experience. Stay with me, here!)

The confession of a sin marks a point in time after which our demonstration of the recognition and avoidance of similar FUTURE transgressions show whether we have truly recovered from the sin and therefore whether we deserve forgiveness for it.  Forgiveness does not come with the immediate acknowledgement of the sin.

We say the Vidui in plural, confessing transgressions that we clearly know we have not committed (see below!), a firm reminder that our moral responsibilities go beyond our personal realms.  Judaism teaches that if we see a friend acting wrongly we are commanded by the Torah to privately and politely rebuke him or her, and when we don't, it is considered as if we share their wrongdoings.

The Yom Kippur confessional consists of two parts: a short confession beginning with the word Ashamnu (אשמנו, "we have sinned"), which is a series of words describing sin arranged according to the aleph-bet, and a long confession, beginning with the words Al Cheyt (על חטא, "for the sin"), which is a set of 22 double acrostics, also arranged according to the aleph-bet, enumerating a range of sins.  The humbling thing about this is that even if we can absolve ourselves of some of these wrongdoings, we have ALL fallen in SOMETHING on this list.  Darn it.  Just when I thought I was being a better Jew… Yom Kippur reminds me (as if I needed it) that there is always room for improvement!)…

We say,


Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibbarnu dofi;

He-evinu, vhirshanu, zadnu, hamasnu, tafalnu sheker;

Ya-atznu ra; kizzavnu, latznu, maradnu, ni-atznu;

Sararnu, avinu, pashanu, tzarnu, kishinu oref ;

Rashanu, shihatnu, ti-avnu, ta-inu, titanu.


We mean,

We abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we destroy, we embitter, we falsify, we gossip, we hate, we insult, we jeer, we kill, we like, we mock, we neglect, we oppress, we perfert ,we quarrel, we rebel, we steal, we transgress, we are unkind, we are violent, we are wicked, we are extremists, we yearn to do evil, we are zealous for bad causes.


And we say,

We have done wrong and transgressed, and so we have not triumphed.  Inspire our hearts to abandon the path of evil, and hasten our redemption. And so Your prophet Isaiah declared: “Let the wicked forsake their path, and the sinful their design.  Let them return to Adonai, who will show them compassion.  Let them return to our God, who will surely forgive them.”

The High Holidays are about return in both literal and figurative ways – children return home from university to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with their families; often, adult children return to their parents with their own children in tow to mark this beginning of our new year.  The biggest return, though, happens with Yom Kippur, when we are enjoyed to return to God.

Beginning with the Kol Nidre service on the evening before (this year, that will be this Friday, October 3rd), we work to prepare ourselves for a spiritual and often emotional marathon.  If you’ve never attended a Kol Nidre service, I recommend it – it’s beautiful, moving, powerful, and profound.  When sun sets on Kol Nidre, we begin a fast from all food and liquid until after the sun sets – and the shofar sounds for the last time – on Yom Kippur.  We abstain from all food and liquid so that we can concentrate only on what is important: relationship.  Relationship with one another, and relationship with God. 

This is the time of year at which Jews – even those who might not be so observant during the rest of the year – are conscious of making amends with those they feel they’ve wronged.  We are mindful of t’shuvah, or in English, return.  This is a time of reconciliation, return, making things right if we can, because this is the time in which we are written in the Book of Life.  Be Rosh Hashanah, yika tevu, u’v’Yom Kippur yika tehmu: On Rosh Hashanah, it is written; on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.  May you be inscribed into the Book of Life this year.  May your new year be a time of remembering the importance of the prayers we say on Yom Kippur, and may you have the kavanah – the mindful intention – of being the person you were created to be.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Weathering your death

Weathering your death

I didn’t think you’d really do it –
Say goodbye to everything like that.
Even though you’d flirted with death before,
I believed you could get better.
I know that you wanted to get better –
Nobody could have tried harder.
And so now I’m weathering your death.
Last night, when the wind was so high
I wondered whether we might have a hurricane –
Was that you?
This morning, wind and rain finally stopped,
Snow all but gone,
Sun shining high in a sky that I think of as Israel-blue,
I wondered –
If the weather had been like this,
An unseasonably mild January day,
With sun shining,
Would you still have wanted to go?
Or would you have taken a deep breath and said,
“I can do this?”
No matter what happens now,
It happens without you.
The sun shines, the wind blows.
Rain will fall today, they say (or it won’t) –
And it doesn’t seem possible
That you will feel none of it,
Know none of it.
No striding down the road
(on a good day, when you could go out),
Hands shoved in pockets, face down, out of the wind,
On a mission to normal (whatever that is).
I’m weathering your death,
Only I didn’t think it would be so hard,
The knowledge that the sun will never kiss your skin again,
That you’ll never rub hands briskly against the cold
Because you forgot your gloves.
I remember that sometimes,
Even on the most beautiful summer’s day,
It wasn’t always easy for you to come out anyhow.
What cheered me and made me hopeful, optimistic,
Often didn’t reach you.
You wore your sickness not like a cape,
But more like a second skin.
Try as you might to shed it, it was going nowhere.
And now you are nowhere –
At least, you said that you believed that
Death was a void, a nothing.
I still don’t think you were right,
And I hope that now your soul is somewhere beautiful.