Tag Archives: High Holidays

High Holy Days

By Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

It is suggested in the High Holy Day Prayer Book
you should carry two scraps of paper,
putting one in each pocket.

One paper should say:
“For my sake the world was created.”
And the other one should read:
“I am ashes and dust.”

What kind of choice is that?
Are we the sovereigns of our own planet,
or nothing but little fragments,
ready to be blown away at the wind’s notice?

On this holiday we reflect:
What is our purpose in our limited time here?
If you’re expecting some kind of answer,
I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong synagogue door.

Our purpose, it seems to me,
is not to find ultimate answers,
but to continue questioning,
with respect to our terrestrial place,
recognizing awe for what we can never fully understand.

I think I will need more than two scraps of paper.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Crosses on the Wall

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father sent me to Hebrew school,
where mournful prayers kept me a prisoner,
preventing me from playing first base
for my beloved Little League team.
On the High Holidays, I dreaded wearing
my wool suit which made me scratch.
I looked all around the synagogue, bored,
counting the number of lights on the memorial wall.
I kept sneaking looks at how many pages remained.
Liberated at 13, I ran free, but was slowed by guilt.
Years later, I am a speaker of literature
at a conference at a small Catholic college.
Two nuns sit in on my workshop,
and on the wall floats a giant cross.
“So boychik, my ancestors seem to be saying.
“How are you feeling these days?
See how your lack of Jewish education has cost you?
Are you now playing first base for the other side?”

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Me, George Herbert, and the High Holidays

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

What do I, little Jewish boy from Brooklyn,
have in common with George Herbert,
17th century metaphysical poet and priest?
A lot more than you might think,
he in italics, me in Times New Roman.
I Struck the board and cry’d, No more.
How many times have I abandoned
the temple, the service, and my God?
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde
at every word….
How many times have I rebelled
at droning words, incomprehensible to my ears?
Me thoughts I heard one calling, ‘Childe.’
And I reply’d, ‘My Lord.’
And so, when the shofar sounds this year,
for reasons I can’t fully explain,
I will be sitting in my usual seat, Row U, Seat 4,
saying “God, I am here,” despite, or maybe
because of, all questions and doubts,
looking to find the exquisite moments of
wonderment and epiphany
I suspect are there.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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The Power of Prayers

by Susan L. Lipson (Poway, CA)

(High Holidays 5772/2011)

So many earnest voices chant their heartfelt prayers today;
How will my words be heard then
In the swell?
Why should God even listen to the simple words I say,
When others sway and cry with
Private pain?

What if my prayers aren’t echoed by a chorus of Amens,
If my words aren’t in the books,
Held by all?
What if I sing my own tune, in my head, not the refrains?
Does God hear solo voices
In the choir?

As Master of conductors, can’t God pinpoint any voice
Amid the others joined in
Harmony?
Can’t God hear what we feel when we send our thoughts to Him;
Must we really move our lips
To move God?

I think God hears intentions, not just voices, not mere words;
And prayers are multilingual,
Not one form.
So if my thoughts fly upward, from my book, like soaring birds,
I need not feel that I’ve strayed—
God hears all.

God hears me, God hears you, God hears them,
God hears all.
God’s in me, God’s in you, God’s in them,
God is all.

Susan L. Lipson, a children’s novelist and poet, has taught writing in the San Diego area for more than ten years. Her latest books are Knock on Wood (a middle-grade novel) and Writing Success Through Poetry. She writes two blogs: www.susanllipson.blogspot.com and www.susanllipsonwritingteacher.blogspot.com.

Lipson also writes songs, including Jewish spiritual songs, some of which have been performed by synagogue choirs and soloists.

Contact her via Facebook or MySpace (Susan L. Lipson).

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What Really Happened That Day

by Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

At Dunkin’ Donuts,
I sip my coffee, bite into a chocolate-
frosted donut and mull over your fate.
Would you like a taste, Isaac?

I know: everything falls this time of year–
acorns, leaves, even knives
fall by accident,
of course.

Tell me, Isaac, you can confide in me,
“What really happened that day?”
If only you were not so
reticent.

A survivor, you figure no one
would believe you. You’re probably right.
Your father, a knife, a ram–
how absurd.

Everything falls this time of year–
spiky chestnuts, ripening apples
even knives fall by accident,
of course.

Rick Black is a prize-winning poet and former journalist who creates hand-crafted books at Turtle Light Press in Arlington, VA. You can see his work at http://www.turtlelightpress.com/

This poem was reprinted with permission of the author. It first appeared in U.S. 1 Worksheets, (Vol. 56),  U.S. 1 Poets’ Cooperative, Princeton, NJ. (http://us1poets.com)

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Finding My Place

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Standing outside the temple,
I hesitated at the door, deciding
whether I would enter for the High Holidays.
“You speakin’ to me?” I asked when
I thought I heard Him inside my head,
beckoning me to come in and pray.
I was reluctant to go inside.
Honestly, I’m just not that comfortable
with the old men chanting in indecipherable tongues,
with standing up, sitting down, repeated too many times.
But then the thought came to me, (through Him?)
religion is not a matter of comfort, but gratitude.
I thought of not being pressed into a cattle car,
thought of living three score and more,
thought of having two fine sons,
and finally, of being, at least tangentially
a part of a 5,000 year old legacy, reasons enough
to rethink a few procedural questions.
“Well,” He said, “coming in?”
“Yes,” I said, firmly, walking in, finding my place.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

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On High Holiday music

by Rachel Barenblat (Lanesboro, MA)

This past week I had two very different liturgical experiences. I spent Shabbat Shuvah weekend at Jewish Renewal retreat center Elat Chayyim, and I went to Yom Kippur services at the congregation I just joined here in North Adams. (Technically it’s a Reform shul, though the congregation was Conservative for a century, so they tend towards a Hebrew-intensive kind of Reform-ness.)

I’m a big fan of Elat Chayyim, in part because I really like the way they handle prayer services. Services are egalitarian and creative; they do interesting things with God-language; they often incorporate meditation into their davvening (they regard prayer as, among other things, a vehicle for becoming more spiritually awake). They also sing a lot: often chants based around one line or one phrase from a particular prayer, and always melodies that are easy to learn and follow.

My little shul uses a fair amount of song in our Shabbat services…but I learned this year that we handle the Days of Awe in a special way. We hire a cantorial soloist to lead us in song. And I didn’t like that one bit.

My problems with the cantor were twofold. First, half the time she sang for us rather than with us, and I don’t like having someone else pray on my behalf. (I’m interested in a grassroots kind of worship, in which the rabbi or chazzan is there to lead us, not to do things for us.) And secondly, she was using ornate, flowery melodies that most of us didn’t know and couldn’t guess, so even when she was trying to lead us in song, we weren’t following very well.

Because I’d just come from Elat Chayyim, where the chants and niggunim are so intuitive and everyone sings everything, the contrast was remarkable.

I know that a lot of people like having a cantor, especially for the High Holidays. And I expect my rabbi was happy to have someone to co-lead services with him; leading a congregation through the intense and intensive Days of Awe has to be exhausting, and I’m sure it’s nice to have someone to share that burden with.

I know that there are special melodies, a special nusach, for the Days of Awe. And I imagine that the cantor probably loves singing this stuff, because it’s the only time of year she gets to do so. If you train to be a cantor, and you learn all of these different melodies for different liturgical seasons, you probably want to use them all, right?

But as a worshipper, I have to say, it really put me off. Because when I’m spending a whole day in shul, I want to be involved. I want to be singing. And since I didn’t know many of the the melodies our cantor was using, I couldn’t follow along. Half the time I just sat there, trying not to be surly, looking at the words and humming the easy melodies I’ve encountered in other congregations under my breath.

Now and then we returned to a melody that everyone knew. And then our voices rang out, and it really felt like a holiday again. Which was great; but it served to highlight how frustrating the rest of the experience was.

So I want to argue against the use of flowery High Holiday nusach. I think it perpetuates a kind of disempowerment. Only the people who happen to know the special melodies can participate, and everyone else is left silenced and subdued: hardly conducive to feeling involved or even uplifted by the shul experience. And isn’t that what we’re there for?

Rachel Barenblat is beginning her fifth year as a student in the ALEPH rabbinic program, and holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington. Author of four poetry chapbooks, she’s been blogging as The Velveteen Rabbi (http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/) since 2003. She lives in Lanesboro, MA, where she and her husband Ethan are expecting their first child this December.

This essay first appeared on The Velveteen Rabbi in October, 2003 and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

For more information about Rachel, you can read this interview: http://faithfulprogressive.blogspot.com/2005/05/fp-interview-rachel-barenblat-from.html

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