Tag Archives: Rosh Hashanah

Poem and Direction of the Heart for the Tenth Day of T’shuvah

By Marcia Falk (Berkeley, CA)

In her new book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, renowned poet Marcia Falk re-creates key prayers and rituals in poetic forms from a contemporary perspective for those in search of a contemplative approach to the High Holidays. Here is an excerpt:

What Do You Have?

Not this earth, not even dust—
Not yours, caw invisible crows
like doors swinging shut.

Not your memories, rising
and burning in the air
like leaf-dew in sun.

Not your thoughts, poking in
and darting out
like hummingbirds in the blossoms.

Only this bit of time (like clouds unforming)—
even as you point to it,


Nothing. You began as nothing and you will end as nothing. And in between—everything, and nothing. In between—joy and sorrow, beauty and decay. Everything yours to partake of, yours to bear. Yours to see, to know, to give birth to—and to let go. None of it yours to have.

Not even you are yours to have. You belong to a wholeness so great you cannot even conceive of it.

No, it is not a belonging; nothing owns you. You are simply part of it. You came out of it and you will return to it. You do not ever leave it, you are part of it forever.

And this is your moment to be alive.

Marcia Falk was born in New York City and raised on Long Island in a Conservative Jewish home. She received a B.A. in philosophy magna cum laude from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Stanford.  A university professor for fifteen years, she taught Hebrew and English literature, Jewish studies, Bible, and creative writing at Stanford, the State University of New York at Binghamton, and the Claremont Colleges. Her classic verse translation of the biblical Song of Songs was released in 2004 in a new edition, The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible (Brandeis University Press).

For more information about her work, visit: http://marciafalk.com/

The material posted here is excerpted from The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season By Marcia Falk (HBI Series on Jewish Women, Brandeis University Press) and reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.

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Sarah Laughed

by Natalie Zellat Dyen (Huntington Valley, PA)

Sarah laughed
When God said she’d bear a son.
Sarah, her skin a road map of her life.
What pleasure is possible? she asked,
For one as old as I?
What good can come
From this time? This body?
And later
Holding impossible in her arms
Sarah laughed once again.

And what of you
Whose path runs long and deep into the forest?
Too late to turn, you say.
Too old.
What if I fail?
To you I say
Listen to Sarah’s laughter
To the possibility of laughter.
To the words in your heart,
Not in your head
The words that say
Anything is possible.

Natalie Zellat Dyen is a freelance writer and photographer living in Huntingdon Valley, PA. Her work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, The Willow Review, Global Woman Magazine, Intercom Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, Wordhaus, and other newspapers and journals. She has just completed her first novel. Links to Natalie’s published work are available at http://www.nataliewrites.com.

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The Tent Connection

by Ronni Miller (Sarasota, FL)

“and it came to pass that everyone that sought the Lord went out into the tent of Meeting…” Exodus 33:7

When I first moved to rural Woodstock in the ‘80’s, I had just barely shed my role as a suburban New Jersey divorced wife and single mother. My three children had sprung the nest and were ensconced in colleges of their choices all over the country. What I discovered in the isolated, eclectic pine cabin that I had built, ringed by fields of hay and mountains, was the fledgling connection to myself and to my life as a writer. It would take many years for me to reinvent myself, and during that time, while adapting to the culture of fading hippies, I felt an intuitive connection to the Jewish services that were held nearby under a tent.

Discovering services down the road from the cabin and under the tent was, at first, daunting, even uncomfortable. I had been raised to be proper and staid, reflective and sorrowful in silence inside a proper temple of brick and mortar, and I tried to duplicate that kind of Jewish experience for my own children as I raised them. But my connection to a spiritualism beyond the words that I mouthed in English and Hebrew in that environment was watery at best. What I began to discover under the tent was an inner connection, a physicality of feeling that I had no words to express. Singing, smiling, even laughing and feeling a lightness of spirit, at first felt wrong at such a holy time, but gradually this way of celebrating became the norm that I yearned to experience. I felt connected to something ancient, and I was proud to be a part of such a bond. Yet by the following year when it was time to make plans to return, I again questioned the sincerity of my action.

When I sold my cabin of wood and glass in Woodstock, NY, packed my quilt, books and computer, and moved south for sun and warmth, I felt the need to make a pilgrimage north each fall to re-experience the interaction of a Judaism that spoke to me of ancient connections and rhythms, a living energy that mingled psychological, philosophical, literary and religious themes in a meaningful way that I had never experienced before in any other synagogue of stone walls and stained glass windows. It became an annual ritual that provided a beginning for the New Year, a ritual that helped me understand where I was in my life at the time, as well as shining a light ahead that would help illuminate my path when I had to return to my home in the south and cope with everyday realities.

That first year, as I drove north on the highway, I thought of Rabbi Jonathan who played his guitar as we sang and danced on the earthen floor. The Woodstock Jewish Congregation Kehillat Lev Shalem is, as their motto says, “the congregation of a full heart.” It is “an egalitarian congregation whose members range from cultural atheists to traditional Jews,” says Rabbi Jonathan Kliger, who was trained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, served as spiritual leader under the tent for twenty-six years, and is now Senior Scholar of the Lev Shalem Institute, a center for learning, creativity, healing, and spiritual growth located at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. Was I returning for this experience alone, and how did that connect to the religiosity of a new year?

I’ve struggled for two decades to understand the true reason for my annual pilgrimage to the tent for High Holiday services. I know I’m seeking a connection, but a connection to what? Even though I celebrate Shabbat each week by lighting the candles and saying the prayers over the bread and the wine, I feel at times like I’m going through the motions for the sake of tradition. So I drive the twenty-five hundred mile trip alone, from Sarasota, FL to Woodstock, NY, searching for something deeper. And I look forward to the experience of emotional freedom and, if only temporary, a spiritual connection while sitting on a metal folding chair on the earth, sheltered from the elements by a white canvas tent, surrounded by fifteen hundred like-minded strangers.

In my struggle to define the truth for this rite of return, questions pile on questions. Is it just nostalgia to return to a place that had once been my home at a crossroads in my life? Is it the novelty of celebrating the High Holidays under a tent with dancing and singing instead of with the austerity and solemnity encased by stained glass windows? Is it because I desire to be included in a community that welcomes all people, Jewish or not, straight, gay, single and married, a community that openly acknowledges the power of expressing feelings and emotions? Is it because I need to confirm the person I reinvented — or began to reinvent — in this mountain community of artists where individualism is recognized, not scorned?

On reflection, I can say, yes, definitely, it is nostalgic to remember every thread and every morsel of a new life that I had made for myself in a rural rather than suburban environment, and where bear, deer and pheasant were my neighbors instead of people.  It was where an eclectic cabin of pine with wide board floors and two story glass windows, surrounded by pasture and mountains, held treasured memories of a home I had built to declare both my choice of aesthetics, as well as my personal independence as a newly unmarried woman with three grown children.  Yes, it had been exciting to continue to create my fiction in this cabin, which overlooked undulating fields of hay, as well as inspiring to recall the birth of the writing program that has sustained me financially on my future path.

This quest for connection on a deep level is a pervasive theme in my life, as well as in my fiction writing, and it is the power of this quest that draws me to the tent each year.  The tent is where I feel the ancient and the modern connect.  A few children and grandchildren have joined me over the years, and for a few hours it feels like we are home again, a family under one roof. We stand before the bimah to receive a blessing before the Torah is opened. Together we hear the shofar blown, the children standing on metal folding chairs to see over the adults’ heads, or astride their father’s shoulders.

I am on a new chapter in my life now as a widow after twenty years of a second marriage. In the past I haven’t been swayed by practicality. Imagination and desire have always trumped reality. Yet I know that this rite of return helps me feel cleansed and inspired to begin a new year. The service under the tent strengthens my religiosity and my spiritualism, and, after it’s over, I know I’ll carry these feelings, along with the words from Rabbi Jonathan’s sermons, in my heart and mind as I drive south again over interstate highways from the Catskill Mountains, past the low country of the Carolina’s, and into the flat terrain beside the Gulf of Mexico.  This ritual of ebb and flow, this traveling up and back, comforts me. It provides a beginning for the year, a meaningful way for me to mark a distinction between the endings and beginnings in my life.

Ronni Miller, author of Dance With The Elephants: Free Your Creativity And Write and Cocoon To Butterfly: A Metamorphosis of Personal Growth Through Expressive Writing, among other published books, is an award winning fiction author and founder and director of Write It Out®, a motivational and expressive writing program for individuals of all ages since 1992.  She teaches and lectures in the US, facilitates writing retreats in Tuscany and Cape Cod, and writes about her Jewish roots, feelings, memories and experiences in published books, short stories, essays, poems and plays for children and adults. In her private practice as a Book Midwife, she helps people birth their books. See www.writeitout.com for more information. 

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My New Year

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

January first doesn’t feel like my new year
even though it’s time for fresh calendars,
and melancholy after-Christmas sales,
and bracing for icy winter, and wishing beyond,
and starting from zero in Blue Cross deductibles,
and whittling-down diets after holiday fressing.

Rosh Hashanah feels like new year
when leaves dress up, then dry up, and fall,
and kids, bored with freedom, go back to school,
and the tans fade away, and the lines disappear,
and we all about-face and shift inward,
towards the refuge of home,
towards the comfort of heart,
towards the warmth of forgiving each other.

Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes — including journaling and creative expression — at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania. She leads a non-fiction writing group and works with individual students, and is continuing to write Jewish-themed readings for what she hopes will become a book, In the Spirit of the Holidays.


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Rosh Hashanah: The First Without My Father

by Jane Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

I hadn’t been with my parents for decades
at their synagogue (in a church,
with Love Never Faileth on the wall above the bimah,
and their newish Jewish Japanese rabbi),
but I always knew we’d speak
to wish each other a Happy New Year
and, like they’ve done at every event around the calendar,
they’d wish me good health, and whatever my heart desired
(which, I have to tell you, hasn’t happened).

But this year, with my father gone,
I felt him with me:
Singing, jumping up and down octaves to stay on key,
drifting off, and back on, during the sermon,
and, most of all, holding my hand
when I stood for the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes — including journaling and creative expression — at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania. She leads a non-fiction writing group and works with individual students, and is continuing to write Jewish-themed readings for what she hopes will become a book, In the Spirit of the Holidays.

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I Never Asked

by Natalie Zellat Dyen (Huntingdon Valley, PA )

My bubba taught me to knit European style, yarn on the left.
What hands had guided her hands,
Which now guided mine?
I never thanked her for that gift.
Or for filling empty jars with cinnamon cookies.
Al heit shehatanu. For the sin of ingratitude.

My bubba could have shared memories:
Of a long-ago village
Of lost traditions
Of melodies sung by her father, the cantor
Who passed on the gift of his voice
Before dying on the passage from old world to new.
But I never asked her to sing those songs.
Al heit shehetanu. For the sin of not asking.

So I must speak for her.
“I remember my own grandmother,” she would have said,
“And you will probably live to see your own grandchildren.
So right now, between the two of us, we share two-hundred years of history.”
And if I had looked into her eyes,
I might have seen her great-grandparents, her great-great-grandparents,
And all who came before.
But I never looked.
Al heit shehetanu. For the sin of turning our backs on the past.

Natalie Zellat Dyen is a freelance writer and photographer living in Huntingdon Valley, PA. Her work has appeared in The Willow Review, Global Woman Magazine, Intercom Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other newspapers and journals. Links to Natalie’s published work are available at www.nataliewrites.com.


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The Rising of the Dough

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

I’m in Cheryl’s kitchen.  It’s fitting.  In the nearly 17 years we’ve lived no more than a mile from each other, she’s been in my kitchen only a handful of times because she’s allergic to my cats.  She gets miserable, and quickly, and symptomatic in a big, wet, unhinged kind of way.  So I’m in Cheryl’s kitchen, again.

I know this kitchen well.  Each summer since we’ve lived so close, I’ve taken care of her house when Cheryl and her husband and two sons go away for two months, to a Jewish camp in the Poconos where she’s director.  Every day for those nine or 10 weeks I take in and sort their mail, flush all the toilets, feed the goldfish, check to make sure there are no mice camped out in the laundry room, water the plants, and generally make sure things are up and running.

But now it’s the other side of summer, and Cheryl has been home from camp for about a month.  It’s a couple of days before Rosh Hashanah, and I’m back in the kitchen; after having let myself in with my own key all summer, it’s always odd to have to knock, again, when I visit.  Each autumn, in the week before Rosh Hashanah, I go to Cheryl’s kitchen and we bake challah together.  To be precise, she leads me through the process, step by step, while making four or six of her own loaves at the same time.  This has been going on since I moved into the neighborhood in 1988, two years after Cheryl and her family.  In fact, I used to live so close to them that I could efficiently walk home and get some work done between risings of the dough.

So you’d think that after baking challah with Cheryl for 17 years that I’d have learned how to bake it on my own.  I’m sure I could have picked it up, but early on I made a conscious effort not to: If I knew how to make challah on my own there’d be no need for me to do it with Cheryl, and I like the ritual.  I play dumb, and it works.  I like knowing that I can count on Cheryl, that this is something I share with her and no one else.  I like to depend on her for this (even though I assert a tiny bit of my own culinary independence by making my challahs with one-third whole-wheat flour).

I always forget to bring an ingredient, too: Salt, maybe, or raisins, or egg yolks for the shine, any of which she lends me.  Cheryl has huge, industrial-sized vats of poppy seeds, which she shares, and she’s the only person I know who owns, let alone uses, baking parchment (which, after it’s been in the oven, and the edges are browned, always looks like it was meant to be written on in Hebrew).

It’s not like Cheryl isn’t a good teacher; she is.  I met her, in fact, when she taught the adult bar and bat mitzvah class I participated in at the Hillel at The University of Pennsylvania.  Not having been a bat mitzvah at the usual time, I’d determined to pay myself back  and do it before I was 30.  My bat mitzvah was one of those big “M” memorable days, the type that become mythic and you pass down to your children.  As I recited my portion I was totally unaware of my surroundings, of my minyan of friends who were there, of Cheryl, who was leading the service in the nasal voice that I now recognize as her davening voice – all that existed was me and the words.  I was totally alone, while simultaneously unaware of the circle of well-wishers surrounding me, a pretty Zen experience for a nice Jewish girl like me.

For as long as Cheryl has had sons, first Jonathan and then Ari has been part of our challah baking.  Whichever boy was old enough – but young enough — to want to help his mother and her friend bake challah would stand on a stool on the other side of the kitchen workstation, and help measure ingredients, or pour them in, or mix.  He would receive his own clump of dough to play with and, as we did with the real challahs, separate off a tiny portion and burn it according to tradition, an attempt to replicate a sacrifice that makes baking holy.  The first time Cheryl let each son knead the clumps of dough that would be used for the actual challahs has been a rite of passage, like the first time you play Candyland with a child without holding yourself back so you don’t win.

So we measure.  We mix.  When the dough becomes too difficult to mix with a spoon, we use our hands, getting in up beyond our wrists, and the smell of liberated yeast hangs over us like a cloud in a beer garden.  We let it rise. We punch it down, and we knead it.  Kneading is a funny business, I think; we give the dough mixed messages: We abuse it, beating it down with our fists, and we coddle it, encouraging it to open up like a flower, to unfold and reproduce itself.  We give it time to breathe, and in spite of its apprehension that we’ll beat it down again, we ask it to rise.

We flour the countertops so the dough won’t stick when we roll it out.  And then we braid it.  To this day, I have not gotten the hang of rolling out three long dough “snakes,” then weaving them together in a motion that feels like when you turn the ropes in double Dutch, and finally tucking the ends securely underneath.

“Show me how to do it again,” I tell Cheryl.

“You mean you forgot from last year?” she says.  “Ari, you remember how to do this from last year, don’t you?” She teases me.  She shames me.  We do this every year; it’s as predictable as my commenting that the poppyseeds look like ants.  Cheryl makes a face I’ve seen many times, a sort of lip pursing that might make you think she was disapproving.  By the time I met her mother, Bea, and saw her make that precise look, I had figured out that it was a disguise, a one-style-fits-all crusty cover to keep back the tenderness.  Neither Cheryl nor her mother exude tenderness like other people you’d automatically peg as “sweet”; if you were in a room full of people you didn’t know, and you were hurting badly, they probably wouldn’t be the first ones you’d think to turn to for comfort.  But you’d have made a mistake.

“Come on, just show me,” I say, and she does, demonstrating how she takes three strands of my dough and braids them evenly, and I remember the motion from when my mother used to do that to my hair when it was so long I could sit on it.  Cheryl does this deftly, and the dough responds to her touch, knowing it had better or else.  Then she starts to unbraid my challah, so I can do it myself, and I stop her.

“Just leave it,” I say.  “I’ll do the other loaves myself.”

“Sure you will,” she says, knowing as well as I that in the end, she’ll rescue me.  Cheryl will do whatever has to be done to help me turn out challahs that will impress my family and friends, challahs that have beautifully browned crusts and are soft and sweet inside, perfect for spreading with honey and wishing a “sweet new year” to everyone around my holiday table.

Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania.  At the moment she is teaching journaling and creative-writing classes to people with cancer, and she’s working on a project that she hopes will be published as The Breast Cancer Journaling Workbook.

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