About Rabbi Brant Rosen

I'm a rabbi, blogger, and activist with a special interest in Israel/Palestine justice work.

A Eulogy for my Mother, Ruth Rosen, z”l

Tonight I’ll be observing my mother’s first yahrzeit. I’ve thought of her every day this past year: a complicated mix of gratitude and sadness I’ve never quite experienced before

If you’d like to learn a little bit more about my mom and her life, here’s the eulogy I gave at her memorial service one year ago.

The sweetness people saw in Ruthie Rosen was very real. It was honest, it was genuine, it was who she was. My mother was truly young at heart; she had that beautiful smile and that ready laugh for her entire life. Ruthie was also, for lack of a better word, a pure artist. She loved beauty and expressed that love through her music and her painting because she simply had to. She couldn’t not be an artist. My mother might well have been the most purely creative person I have ever known.

I have no doubt that all of these qualities were part of her soul from the very beginning of her life. 

Ruth Rosen was born in 1933 in Los Angeles, to Simon Israel and Gertrude Ellenberg. Grandpa Simon was an immigrant from Romania, who made his way to the US through Canada and worked for most of his life as a printer. Grandma Gertie, a child of immigrants was born in New York City. Mom was the youngest of three sisters, something of an unexpected surprise; she was born nine years after her next older sister, Francie. 

As the baby of the family, Ruthie was the adored one. She was particularly the apple of her father Simon’s eye who, she said, would give her big, loving hugs every day when he came home from work. By all accounts, my mom had a wonderful, idyllic childhood. The pre-war LA she described to us sounded like paradise: she told us great stories about taking the streetcar to the beach, going to the movies and the skating rink with her friends. 

As a child, my mother took skating and ballet classes, as well as art and violin lessons. She also loved the movies – a love she would later bequeath to my me and brothers. She would tell us often about going to the big LA movie palaces with her friends and her parents. She particularly loved musicals and comedies. She must have seen “Singing in the Rain” close to a hundred times during the course of her life.

My mom attended Manual Arts High School, which she also described as a very special, happy time in her life. She played violin in the school orchestra, continued with her art and dance classes and was a cheerleader (yep, a cheerleader!) We have wonderful pictures from this period, of a smiling, laughing Ruthie, posing with groups of friends, clearly having the time of her life. She told us she would often be possessed by giggling fits that would invariably get her into trouble. In one now legendary story, she was playing in orchestra class and her bow caught on the toupee of her music teacher. Of course, she couldn’t stop laughing and of course, this got her immediately tossed from the room. 

By comparison to High School, Ruth described UCLA as big and a bit overwhelming. Still, she made some good friends during these years, many of whom she kept for most of her life. She continued to pursue her dance and music studies, became an avid folk dancer and artist, drawing  and painting landscapes in the rolling fields that surrounded Westwood in the 1950s. 

Shortly after she graduated, she met Larry Rosen, who was home in LA after finishing up his medical studies at Northwestern. They met through their common friend, Eric Parkan. As the story goes, they were in a park with friends and my future dad saw my future mom having fun with her friends, laughing as they rolled down a grassy hill together. Larry asked Eric, who is that girl? When they were introduced, my mother’s first words to him were, reportedly, “aren’t you Marty Rosen’s brother?” 

When they met, they were both at a crossroads in their lives. My mom had recently graduated from UCLA and my dad was about to enter the navy and set out to sea as a flight surgeon. They dated and became increasingly close that summer. One day, as they were driving up the California coast together, my mom said she wanted my dad to meet her cousin Phil and his wife Jackie. In response, he gave her a silver mezuzah on a chain and said, “I will if you marry me.” My mom responded with the now immortal words, “You’re kidding.” After they were engaged, my dad promptly set out to sea with the navy and my mom worked as a public-school teacher, teaching physical education and art to Junior High students. 

Shortly before they were married in August 1957, my mother’s beloved father Simon tragically died, following complications from fairly straightforward surgery. Ruthie adored her father and she mourned this loss deeply for her entire life. At their wedding ceremony, everyone assumed she was crying from happiness but in fact, it was because she so wished it was her father walking her down the aisle. 

As my brothers will attest, even though we never knew our Grandpa Simon, we felt his presence because she talked to us about him all the time. She talked about his kindness and gentle spirit and how he doted on her for her entire life. She also told us how much she loved going to the movies with him: in addition to his boisterous laugh, he would shush people who talked or ate food too loudly. He himself would often laugh all the way through, then after it was over, say, “What a terrible movie.”  I have personally inherited these movie-going habits from my Grandpa Simon – if you have any doubts about this, just ask my own kids.

By their own admission, Ruth and Larry really didn’t know each other all that well when they got married. But it’s not hard for me to understand why they fell in love with each other. I mean, just look at pictures of them from that period. Frankly, I would have fallen in love with them myself.  In many ways, they were a classic example of how opposites attract. My dad always had something of, shall we say, a sharp edge. Anyone who knows them will attest that my mom was the one most responsible for softening up Larry Rosen and coaxing out his sensitive side. For his part, my dad gave my mom the stability and foundation she craved following the death of her father and the sometimes rocky relationship she had with her mother. Also, they both had great, silly senses of humor and clearly knew how to make each other laugh. This would be the case for the next 63 years of their marriage together. 

Even if they were so different in so many ways, my parents’ marriage truly modeled how two people could learn to grow together. My dad shared my mother’s passions, even the ones that didn’t come so naturally to him. Though he wasn’t, uh, a born dancer, he gamely accompanied her to folk dancing outings for decades. He also took up the cello and played for many years at his own pace, inspired by my mother’s example. When he retired, he took up sculpting, sharing my mother’s studio space with her. My parents went everywhere together: to classical music concerts, to dancing and folk music weekends, and they took us all on family trips every summer. More than anything, Ruth and Larry showed us what a committed relationship could look like: how to live together, grow together, how to lovingly share the passions in your life with one another along the way. 

After they were married, my folks moved into a small house in Los Feliz on Hazel Kirk Drive. David was born in 1960 and I came along in 1963. Shortly before Ian was born in 1966, we moved just around the corner to a bigger house on Tracy St. My mom would often comment on how she grew up surrounded by women, as one of three sisters, but went on to be the only female in a family with three sons. While it is true that there was much male energy in their house, by my recollection, my mom could hold her own as one of the boys. She had a bawdy sense of humor like the rest of us and certainly could give as good as she got when it came to the men in her house.

Ruthie was a loving, doting, involved mother. I remember sitting in her art studio, painting alongside her and as well, watching and listening to her practicing violin throughout the day. String music was, in fact, the almost constant background sound in the Rosen home. It was often just her solo violin, other times it was the chamber music that she played with friends in our living room. Mom’s love for music made it an indelible part of our family life. As soon as we could, David, Ian and I started piano lessons. Soon after, David started on cello and I took up violin. Like most kids, we hated practicing, but eventually the day would come that David started to actually enjoy it. Me, not so much. The rest, as they say, is history. 

I have many lovely memories from our life in Los Feliz. My brothers and I shared a bedroom and mom would read to us every night before saying to us, “Pleasant dreams, no noise.”  I remember her laughing while singing us the Oompa Loompa songs in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and crying at the end of “Charlotte’s Web.” And there were the countless days she spent taking us to our home away from home, the Hollywood-Los Feliz Jewish Community Center, where we attended gym class and nursery school. 

Despite those wonderful years, however, there was one serious problem: the horrid smog that plagued LA in the late 1960s. My mom prevailed upon my dad to move to a part of the city with cleaner air, but my dad always resisted. That is, until that fateful day when we all went on a family bike ride in Griffith Park and all returned home literally wheezing in pain. And so, in 1971 we moved to Santa Monica to what would become the family homestead on 305 Alta Ave. This is where my brothers and I spent the rest of our childhood – and where my parents would live until they moved to the Carmel Valley Manor just a few years ago. 

My brothers and I were so blessed to have grown up in Santa Monica in the 1970s, which was its own little city inside big sprawling Los Angeles. In those days it was a sleepy beach town, nothing like the over-affluent McMansion-land that it is today. It was truly a wonderful place to come of age. We lived within walking or biking distance of our friends, whose parents were often good friends with our parents. Our house was just a half a block east of Ocean Avenue, where a trail snaked down the bluff to the beach. Santa Monica was our world – and the house on Alta was our home in every sense of the word.

My mother infused our house inside and out with her own unique spirit. In front of the big, concrete front porch, she planted a long garden filled with orange poppies and later, with big, twisty succulents. She planted a jacaranda tree in the front lawn that eventually grew quite tall, budding purple blossoms every year that would carpet the grass in front of our house. Behind the house was a large backyard with a sprawling lawn. On one side was a brick patio that my folks put in shortly after we moved in; at the other end was a huge avocado and persimmon tree. Mom planted gardens throughout our backyard, which she tended with great love and care throughout the years. 

Like the impressionist artists she idolized, Ruthie painted countless oil and watercolor paintings of her garden. Her gardening, her art and her music were singular passions for her. She even painted a series of paintings that combined all three, with musicians playing in her garden, whimsical pieces that sometimes included violinists flying, Chagall-like, through the air. Her art studio was located in a sun room adjacent to their bedroom and later expanded to our converted garage. Her paintings hung on almost every wall in our house.

My mom was blessed, and sometimes she might say cursed, to be both a born artist and a born musician, and she bounced back between these two art forms for her entire life. She was never satisfied, always immersing herself and driving herself to be better in each. When she heard a violin concerto, she was in bliss, but sometimes she’d also feel a pang and say out loud, why bother practicing all the time when I’ll never be able to play like this? When she immersed herself in her music, she would sometimes agonize that she was neglecting her art – and vice versa. My mom was a creative person to her very soul, experiencing all the joys and frustrations that come with it. 

Later in her life she transitioned from classical music to traditional folk music. Not to do anything halfway, she eventually joined a group called the Upstairs String Band with her niece Dodi and played in concerts and festivals all over the state. Even though David and Ian and I had already left the house and we no longer needed our family station wagon, my mom bought a minivan that would carry her band’s musical equipment and when necessary, serve as a place for her to sleep during their touring. (On one such tour, she was sleeping in her van and woke up to it shaking in the middle of the night. She told us she was terrified because she thought she was being attacked by a bear. When she realized it was an earthquake, she said “oh, thank God” and went back to sleep.)

When Ruthie played folk music, you could just see in her face how immersed she was in the music every moment. In addition to her folk band, she also became a mainstay of the band at our synagogue Beth Shir Shalom for many years that played contemporary and klezmer music. Mom would sometimes say she was sure she had gypsy in her blood – most likely from her Romanian father – because of her abiding love for folk dancing and music-making with her roving band. But again, she never fully left classical music behind. She would follow her own creative muse, using whatever art form she needed to unlock her spirit at any given time in her life. 

Don’t get me wrong: Ruthie wasn’t joy and music all the time. When we were kids, my cousin Dirk once asked my brothers and me, “Is your mother always this sweet and nice?” As my brothers and my father will attest, my mom could indeed lose her temper with us. And in addition to her creative struggles, she struggled with her sense of self-worth, wondering if it wasn’t just a luxury to live a comfortable life as an artist, supported by her husband when there was so much need in the world. She also had a complicated relationship with her mother Gertrude, who was a very loving, but strong-willed woman who loomed large in her life. It was particularly hard on my mom when my grandmother contracted Alzheimer’s – and this woman who was so dominant in her life became increasingly dependent upon her to be her caretaker. As such a deeply feeling person, my mother was too hard on herself, always feeling that she wasn’t doing enough for mother even as she was such a devoted, compassionate daughter to my grandmother at the end of her life.

Ruth was aIso a passionate political activist for most of her adult life. I don’t know any other way to say it than that when she felt anger at injustice in the world, she took it personally. (This is something I believe I almost certainly inherited from her.) When she experienced something as unjust, she couldn’t not do something, for her own sanity. During our Los Feliz days, she became very involved working for the first ballot referendums to mandate smog control guidelines. (When I was in the second or third grade, her efforts inspired me to write an op-ed for our elementary school magazine, where I wrote passionately that I didn’t feel it was right to “vote for smog.”)

As a progressive through and through, I recall my mom talking to me about the civil rights movement from a very early age. I also remember her railing against Reagan when he was governor and how he caused California’s homeless population to skyrocket when he closed state mental health facilities. She railed against Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush for pretty much everything.

My mother was also a passionate advocate and activist for gun control for many, many years. Whenever she would hear the news of shootings, whether it be local street violence or a mass shooting, she would become visibly emotional and angry, particularly at the gun culture that is so endemic to our country and the blood money profits made by gun manufacturers. I cannot begin to count the number of letters to the editor she wrote and petitions she distributed. She also became an active leader in the Million Mom March movement in the late 1990s. 

In addition to her passion for social justice, I was also bequeathed a strong Jewish identity from both of my parents. Our family was very involved in our local Temple, Beth Shalom and went regularly to retreats at Brandeis Camp Institute. Every Friday evening, we’d have a family Shabbat dinner together around the big table in our dining room. On Hanukkah and Pesach, we gathered around that table with extended family and friends for holiday celebrations. 

My mother talked to us often and very naturally about being Jewish. Her stories about growing up during the Holocaust had a particularly powerful effect on me. She told me about how having the last name Israel made her visibly Jewish as a child, about being called “dirty Jew” in the schoolyard. She also told me one particular story that I will never, ever forget: as a young girl she went to the movies and saw newsreel footage of the death camps being liberated, with images of the dead bodies stacked up. She ran out of the theater crying hysterically and asked her parents was this going to happen to them too? She said she remembered looking up at the sun in the sky and thinking to herself “How can the same sun and sky look out over another part of the world that could know such horrors?”

From my mother, I learned that being Jewish was not just something you were – it was something you felt to your core. She also modeled for me in a very organic way that being Jewish meant to have a passion for justice – and to act on that passion. When I told my parents of my decision to be a rabbi, I know both of my parents were proud, if also a little bewildered, considering what an unwilling student I’d been in Hebrew school. But deep down, I know that my own Jewish and activist paths were an inevitable product of being Ruth Rosen’s son. 

As our family grew, my mother’s love extended farther and wider. When I met and married Hallie, Ruthie loved her like the daughter she never had. When our kids came along, she just adored Gabe and Jonah and she lived for our visits together. It was an indescribable feeling for me to see them respond to her love the way I did when I was their age: reading to them the way she did for me and my brothers, setting up little easels for them to paint on in her art studio, taking them to the movies and museums and concerts, with the same kind of pure love that she bestowed upon us. 

There’s so much more I want to say about my mother. I really want people who didn’t know her to have the chance to learn about her, even just a little bit. I know it’s a cliche to say, but it is absolutely true: everyone who knew her, truly loved her. I don’t think there was a person alive who disliked Ruth Rosen. She just embodied a pure kind of sweetness that was real and honest. 

You can see her innate radiance in almost every picture ever taken of her. Ruthie was just the kind of person that you wanted to know and have in your life. Since she died, I’ve heard from a number of her friends who were so upset and distraught when they heard the news – even those who had not spoken to her in many years. I know they’re feeling so bereft because of the joy she brought into their lives. We’re all struggling to understand how such a beautiful person could no longer be in this world. 

But of course, that’s not true. So many people are telling me that they have her paintings hanging in their homes, and how lucky that makes them feel. That means in a very real way, Ruth Rosen’s beauty is all around us. It literally lives on all over the country – and it always will. 

In the end, when I hear stories about how many people loved Ruth Rosen, I can’t help but think: how lucky am I? How lucky are my brothers and I that we got Ruth Rosen as our mother? How lucky is my dad, that he got to be her husband? What did we possibly do to deserve having such a beautiful, loving person in our lives? 

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I promise I will never take them for granted. Ruthie’s beauty will live on through all of us. And her memory will always be a blessing. 

Petirat Moshe – Letting Go

“The Death of Moses” by Alexandre Cabanel

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley of Moab, near Beit Peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)

Readers of the Torah often comment on the seeming unfairness of God’s decree that Moses must die before he can enter the Promised Land. But when we reach the final verses of the Torah, the tone feels anything but untimely or tragic. Rather, God’s treatment of Moses in his final moments hints at a spirit of love and tenderness.

Commentators have made much of the words “al pi adonai” – “at the command of the Lord,” which literally means “at the mouth of the Lord.” In the midrashic imagination, this verse is commonly read: “Moses died…at the kiss of God.” Some have pointed out the poignant symmetry of this image: just as God breathes life into the first human, God reclaims Moses’ soul with through a similar loving act.

The portrayal of God personally “burying” Moses is equally as powerful. The stark anthropomorphism of this verse is striking in the way it invites us to identify with this sacred act of kindness. The mitzvah of burying the dead, in fact, comes from this text. According to halacha, burial of the dead is one of our most sacred mitzvot in Jewish tradition, since it is performed with the knowledge that it cannot possibly be “repaid” by the recipient.

God’s care for Moses in the final days of his life is described in great detail in a famous midrash known as Petirat Moshe. At the end of this classic rabbinic text, God and the angels guide Moses, in a sense, through his final dying process. For his part, Moses seems to almost go through the various Kubler-Ross phases as he pleads with God for his life: i.e., anger, bargaining, denial, and finally, of course, acceptance. Among other things, this midrash powerfully portrays the gamut of Moses’ emotions from the sense of unfairness to his final moment of letting go

When I read this Torah portion a few weeks ago, I remembered that I actually wrote a contemporary rendering of Petirat Moshe in 1992, during my final year of rabbinical school. Here it is below – I’ll resist the intense urge to change and tweak the language of a young rabbinical student and offer it just as it appeared thirty years ago:

By the time Moshe and the Children of Israel reached the Jordan River, it had already been decreed that Moshe should die before he reached the Promised Land. Moshe had already known this, of course, but up until this point he had been a master of denial. Between the sealing of his decree and his arrival at the threshold, there had been too much to do; too much to think about. Anyway, how could such an awful prospect possibly be true?

When Moshe reached the river’s edge, however, God revealed the full extent of the decree. There, with the Land almost in sight, the pain was too much for him to bear. He had been a faithful servant of the Holy One for most of his adult life. He had led the Israelites out of slavery, kept them alive in the wilderness, taught them the way of Torah, judged their disputes. Now, with the Promised Land within reach, he was being cruelly denied. He was not ready to die! How could God deny him the glorious moment of entrance into the Land of Israel? Or even a glimpse?

Moshe finally cracked. He drew a small circle, stood inside it, and looked defiantly out into the expanse of the desert before him. “I will not move from this spot until You revoke my decree of death.” Then Moshe put on sackcloth and ashes and prayed fervently. His plea for his life was so powerful that it penetrated the highest heavens and the deepest foundations of the earth.

Moshe’s powerful prayer was so moving that it caused the angels in the celestial courts of justice to weep for him. But the Holy One said the no angel was to bring Moshe’s prayer before God, because his death decree had already been sealed. God called on the angel Akraziel, the celestial herald, and told him, “Go down immediately and lock every gate in heaven so that Moshe’s prayer cannot ascend.”

Moshe continued with his prayer. “Sovereign of the Universe, think of how much I had to suffer for the sake of the Children of Israel! Can it be that I must suffer with them, and not take part in their rejoicing?”

But God replied, “I am sorry. Your decree has been sealed. To everything there is a season, and a time for everything under heaven.”

Then Moshe began to negotiate. “Please. At least allow me to remain just one day in the Promised Land before I die.”

God held firm. “It cannot be. The decree has been sealed.”

“Well, if I am not to enter the Land, would you at least allow me to gaze upon it before I die?”

But God replied, “The decree has been sealed.”

When Moshe realized that his prayers were not going to work, he decided to get others to pray on his behalf. He addressed the earth: “O earth, I implore you, plead my case before God. Maybe then the Holy One will take pity on me and allow me to enter the Land of Israel.”

The earth replied, however, “How could I possibly plead on your behalf? I am of dust, just as you. Our fate is the same: ‘Of dust you are, and of dust you will return.'”

Then Moshe asked the heavens, “If you please, implore the Holy One on my behalf.” But the heavens replied, “We’re too busy doing the same for ourselves. After all, it was written about us, ‘The heavens shall vanish like smoke.'”

Moshe asked the sun and moon, the stars and planets, the hills and mountains, the rivers: all the elements of nature, but they were too busy pleading their own case. None would help him out.

Finally, Moshe asked the Reed Sea, who responded sarcastically, “You mean to tell me that you, who were able to wave his staff and slice me into pieces is now asking for my help? Ha! That’s a good one!”

Moshe now grasped the full reality of his aloneness. He sat down in his circle, put his face in his hands, and began to weep.

The Holy One saw Moshe and asked him, “Moshe, why are you so sad? You have known about this decree for a long time.”

Moshe replied, “I am scared.”

The Holy One said, “There is nothing to be scared of, Moshe. I will command your nephew Eleazar to accompany you to your resting place on Mt. Nebo. You shall die atop this holy mountain, for death does not mean destruction, but elevation. You will see, Moshe. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

And at noon on the following day, Eleazar went with Moshe up Mt. Nebo. Eleazar was instructed to leave Moshe before they reached the top. Moshe climbed the rest of the the way alone. When he finally arrived at the mountaintop, he found a beautiful golden couch which had been arranged for him by the angels. Moshe lay down upon it as God had instructed.

As soon as he lay down, Moshe beheld a wondrous vision. He say the Temple in Jerusalem in all its luminous splendor, shining forth from its holy mount. Moshe cried out, “I thought you told me I wasn’t allowed to glimpse the Promised Land before I died.”

“Look carefully,” said God.

Then Moshe realized that what he was seeing was not the Temple in earthly Jerusalem, but rather the Holy Temple which sits in the Jerusalem of the Heavens, of which our earthly Temple is but a pale comparison. This was the Temple constructed by God’s hand. It was made of precious jewels, pearls and gold – and it housed the holy light of the Shechinah, which was to be preserved for Israel to all eternity, to the end of all generations.

As Moshe beheld this glorious vision, his resistance began to melt. Yet no sooner did begin to sigh, than the Angel of Death appeared.

Moshe froze up. Terror began to rise from the pit of his stomach. But as he looked on, he realized something odd. The figure wasn’t fearful at all, but bathed in light. Then, as the form turned to face him, he recognized the face of his Beloved.

It was only then that Moshe finally let go. He said to his soul as it left his body, “Return O my soul, to your tranquility, for Adonai has dealt bountifully with you.”

The Holy One thereupon reclaimed Moshe’s soul with a kiss, and Moshe, whose name means “drawn from the water” returned to that vast, limitless Ocean of All Being.

All streams flow into the sea, but the sea is never full. To the place from which the water flows, there it will flow back again. (Ecclesiastes 1:7)

A New Birkat Hamazon/Blessing After the Meal

Chaverai nevarech/Friends, let us offer blessings…

...for the food we have shared. We give thanks for the earth and its goodness, created to feed and sustain all that lives. As we rejoice in the ever-giving blessings of creation, let us commit to spreading your abundance to all who dwell upon the earth. May we forever work to create a world in which hunger is no more, as it is written, there shall be no needy among you. Baruch atah adonai, hazan et hakol – Blessed are you, who feeds us all. Amen.

...for the lands upon which we dwell. May the inhabitants of every land live in safety and security. Let us all strive to be caretakers of the land, that it may yield its abundance to future generations, as it is written, the land will give forth its fruits and you will eat to fullness and dwell in security upon it. We acknowledge that too many are sustained by the bounty of lands that have been colonized and stolen from their original inhabitants. May we work to bring the day when all who have been exiled and dispossessed know restoration and reparation. Baruch atah adonai, al ha’aretz ve’al hamazon – Blessed are you, for the land and its sustenance. Amen.

…for the vision of a world complete. May this dream become reality soon in our own day, that every land may be a Zion, every city a Jerusalem, every home a sanctuary offering welcome to all. May your world be rebuilt upon a foundation of compassion, equity and justice, as it is written, compassion and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss. Baruch atah adonai, boneh ha’olam b’tzedek v’rachamim – Blessed are you, who rebuilds the world in justice and compassion. Amen.

…for your abundant goodness. Teach how to walk in your ways: the ways of kindness and decency, graciousness and understanding, now and always. Just as you nourish us unconditionally, so may we learn how to take care of one another with openness and love. For it is written, you open your hand and nourish the desire of all life. Baruch atah adonai, ha’tov ve’hameitiv – Blessed are you, who is good and who bestows goodness upon us all. Amen.

Commentary:

In composing this new Birkat Hamazon/Blessing After the Meal, I maintained the essential structure of the traditional prayer, which consists of four basic spiritual themes or categories. As with the other new liturgies that I’ve written, I seek here to compose Jewish prayers that express a Diasporist ethic; that is to say, liturgy that views the entire world as our “homeland” and resists the influence of modern political Zionism, which has become so thoroughly enmeshed in contemporary Jewish liturgy.

I’ll unpack each section here in turn. For purposes of comparison, a Hebrew/English version of the Birkat Hamazon can be found here.

.Friends, let us offer blessings… This is a simple, shortened version of the zimun – an invitation to prayer – when 10 or more people have just shared a meal.

...for the food: The first blessing offers gratitude to God for providing the food that sustains all creation. In this section, I chose to make explicit the fact that although the earth contains enough abundance to feed all of humanity, we nonetheless live in a world of rampant hunger. Thus, the moral imperative: “Let us …work to create a world in which hunger is no more.” For this reason, I chose to substitute the traditional Biblical verse, Deuteronomy 8:10 (“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you”), with Deuteronomy 15:4: (“There shall be no needy among you.”)

...for the lands: The second blessing traditionally gives thanks for Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel. In keeping with a centering of the Jewish diaspora over one particular piece of land, I chose to render this wording “for the lands” rather than “for the land (al ha’aretz.) In other words, we give thanks for the many lands upon which the Jewish people have made – and continue to make – their homes.

Although the traditional version was written well before the era of Zionism, many contemporary versions of the Birkat Hamazon use this section to offer thanksgiving for the establishment of the state of Israel. (The Reconstructionist version of this prayer for instance, includes the words, “for the culture, faith and hope of our people alive once more in Eretz Yisrael.”) Some versions also include a prayer for Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day as well.

The traditional version of this section also invokes the Exodus from Egypt (“you redeemed us from the House of Bondage.”) Here, I chose to universalize this message and render it as a prayerful land acknowledgment. This recognizes the undeniable fact that many who say this prayer for the land will be invoking it on land that was literally colonized and stolen from others. Finally, to recognize the threat of global climate change to the lands upon which we live, I’ve also highlighted the importance of safeguarding God’s abundance for future generations. For a Biblical verse, I chose Leviticus 25:19, which references living upon the land “in security.”

…for the vision of a world complete: The traditional version of the section thanks God for the city of Jerusalem, expressing the messianic yearning for God to re-establish the city and to rebuild the Temple. In composing this section, I transvalued the messianic ideal into a vision of the world “as it should be” – embodied by an era of universal ” compassion, equity and justice.” As the Hebrew word for Jerusalem, Yerushalayim – contains the root Sh”LM, which means “wholeness,” I chose the image of a “world complete.”

I also chose to idealize Jerusalem to represent the mythic “city of peace” in which which we all yearn to live. In this regard, I was particularly inspired by the classic rabbinic notion of “Yerushalayim Shel Mala” or “Jerusalem of the Heavens.” (I personally find this much more powerful than a quasi-idolatrous attachment to an earthly piece of land which, tragically, has rarely known a moment of peace.) For the Biblical verse, I chose Psalm 85:10, which evokes a vision of this universal future with incredible poetic beauty.

for your abundant goodness: This final section was added to the Birkat Hamazon in the aftermath of the disastrous Bar Kochba revolt in the second century CE, reflecting a sense of healing and optimism – and faith in God’s goodness – even in the wake of a cataclysmic collective tragedy. In my rendering, I chose to highlight not only God’s goodness, but the moral imperative to mirror that goodness in our own relationships with one another. For the Biblical verse, I retained the traditional line from Psalm 145:16: “You open your hand…”

I ended this section – and the Birkat Hamazon as a whole – with the traditional blessing, “Baruch atah adonai, ha’tov ve’hameitiv” (“Blessed are you who is good and who bestows good upon us all”). This blessing is traditionally recited at times “which bring pleasure to an entire community” – an eminently appropriate way to end a blessing following a communal meal.

El Male Rachamim for Gaza

I recited this memorial prayer yesterday at a vigil sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine – Chicago. The gathering was organized “to grieve with us the lives lost in this most recent Israeli onslaught upon Gaza, and to honor the countless Palestinians who have fallen victim to the ongoing Nakba since 1948.” It is based on the traditional Jewish prayer “El Male Rachamim” (“God Filled with Compassion”). .

El male rachamim shochen bam’romim
ha’metzei menucha nechonah
tachat kanfei ha’shechinah.

Oh, God filled with compassion,
whose loving presence ever surrounds us
bring perfect rest to those
who have been killed without pity in Gaza,
in refugee camps, in apartments,
in homes that provided no sanctuary,
as they worked, as they slept,
as they sat down to share meals together,
as they fled from the overpowering might
of rockets and bombs from above.

Receive their souls with the fulness of your mercy.
bind them to the souls of their ancestors
whose lives were unjustly taken
during the dispossession of the Nakba –
an injustice that continues 
even as we call out to you now.

Source of all mercy, protect these precious souls 
with the shelter they were denied in their lifetimes.
Gather them under the softness of your wings,
show them love, bring them home.

Remind us that no one is forgotten in your sight, 
that all are welcome at your side,
that each and every one of their lives 
is a story of sacred worth and meaning
that can never be lost.

As we rededicate ourselves to their lives.
Turn our grief and anger into resolve.
Filll us with strength and will and purpose –
inspire us to stand as one in solidarity,
that together we may end this injustice
once and for all.

Ba’al ha’rachamim tastireihem
b’seter kanfecha le’olamim.

Source of all compassion,
extend your shelter across the land
that the refugees may return home soon in our day –
that all who live between the river and the sea
may enjoy the blessings of equity, 
of justice and of peace. 

V’nomar
and let us say, 
Amen.

A Letter to Gaza

I want you to know.
I want you to know I’m thinking of you.
I want you to know I think of you almost every day.
I want you to know I think of you even when the bombs aren’t falling.
I want you to know I remember.
I want you to know I remember the moment I tasted red tahini for the first time.
I remember Ali running out to a different restaurant so we could taste knafeh ghazawiya
I remember Firas’ baby daughter saying hello to each of us by name. 
I remember talking to the fishermen while they mended their nets.
I remember the exhilarating moment when we set out to sea,
the vicarious feeling of liberation even as we had to stay outside the firing zone.
I remember Erez, that dystopic funhouse maze
and your smiling faces greeting us on the other side. 
I remember the concrete benches lining the seaside,
painted with the names of cities and villages that are not forgotten.
I remember the restaurant outside Beach Camp, the perfect fish, the deep orange sunset.
I remember seeing Ashkelon’s smoke stacks off in the distance,
thinking to myself I am exactly where I need to be.
I remember walking back after dinner, the evening blackout, the hum of the generators.
I remember that final breakfast at the beach,
when I looked at the spot where the Bakr boys were shot down
and I thought of them playing football in Gaza shel mala – 
that is, the Gaza on high –
where there is nothing to fear from above
and how I will not rest until
heaven is brought back down to earth. 

A Lamentation for Gaza


Palestinian mourners carry the body of 11-year-old Hussain Hamad, killed by an Israeli military airstrike, during his funeral in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Gaza weeps alone.
Bombs falling without end
her cheeks wet with tears.
A widow abandoned
imprisoned on all sides
with none willing to save her.

We who once knew oppression
have become the oppressors.
Those who have been pursued
are now the pursuers.
We have uprooted families
from their homes, we have
driven them deep into
this desolate place,
this narrow strip of exile.

All along the roads there is mourning.
The teeming marketplaces
have been bombed into emptiness.
The only sounds we hear
are cries of pain
sirens blaring
drones buzzing
bitterness echoing
into the black vacuum
of homes destroyed
and dreams denied.

We have become Gaza’s master
leveling neighborhoods
with the mere touch of a button
for her transgression of resistance.
Her children are born into captivity
they know us only as occupiers
enemies to be feared
and hated.

We have lost all
that once was precious to us.
This fatal attachment to our own might
has become our downfall.
This idolatrous veneration of the land
has sent us wandering into
a wilderness of our own making.

We have robbed Gaza of
her deepest dignity
plunged her into sorrow and darkness.
Her people crowd into refugee camps
held captive by fences and buffer zones
gunboats, mortar rounds
and Apache missles.

We sing of Jerusalem,
to “a free people in their own land”
but our song has become a mockery.
How can we sing a song of freedom
imprisoned inside behind walls we have built
with our own fear and dread?

Here we sit clinging to our illusions
of comfort and security
while we unleash hell on earth
on the other side of the border.
We sit on hillsides and cheer
as our explosions light up the sky
while far below, whole neighborhoods
are reduced to rubble.

For these things I weep:
for the toxic fear we have unleashed
from the dark place of our hearts
for the endless grief
we are inflicting
on the people of Gaza.

Yotzer Or: Such Exquisite Radiance

As every living thing
bends toward the light,
we turn to you,
sending forth our praise
as you open the gates of heaven,
renewing your work of creation
with faithfulness and love.

Nothing is untouched by your presence:
from the luminaries on high
to the sand beneath our feet –
no boundary can contain your radiance,
no border can hold back your light;
it shines upon us all, 
every ray an angel singing out 
from the heavens:
the whole earth is filled
with your glory!

So let a new light shine upon us –
may it illuminate every corner of creation,
that every land may be a Zion, 
that all may be worthy to bask 
in the warmth of its glow.

Blessed are you, forever recreating our world
with such exquisite radiance.

Ahavah Rabbah: A Wild and Boundless Love

You love us with a wild and boundless love
and care for us with unending, unconditional compassion.
You show us your ways so tenderly, guiding us
just as you guided countless generations before us.
Teach us with a passion that will resonate
deep in our hearts, inspire us to see
and hear and learn and teach and
act with love now and always.

Open our hearts as one to your light
and keep us far from confusion and shame.
May it lead us toward your justice,
toward liberation for all who dwell on earth;
that all who are exiled and dispossessed
may safely find their way home
that all may rejoice in you
and celebrate your holy name as one. 

Blessed are you, who loves us all
with a fierce love that knows no bounds.

Prayer for Homeless Persons Memorial Day

It was my honor today to write and deliver this prayer at a Memorial Service/Action sponsored by the recently (re)created Chicago Union for the Homeless. The Winter Solstice (today) has been designated Homeless Person’s Memorial Day to remember those who have died homeless in the past year.

Following the service at Chicago’s Thompson Center, protesters carried a symbolic casket in a silent march in honor of the deceased. At City Hall, representatives from the Homeless Union presented a petition demanding immediate housing and adequate mental and physical health care for all homeless persons in the Chicago and Cook County.

This new liturgy is based on the traditional Jewish memorial prayer, El Male Rachamim:.

El male rachamim shochen bam’romim
ha’metzei menucha nechonah
tachat kanfei ha’shechinah.

God filled with compassion,
whose loving presence ever surrounds us
bring perfect rest to all who have died unhoused
those who have died on the streets, in tent cities
public parks and under viaducts.

Protect these precious souls 
with the shelter they were denied in their lifetimes
gather them under the softness of your wings
show them love, bring them home.

Remind us that no one 
is forgotten in your sight
that all are welcome at your table
that each and every one of their lives 
is a story of sacred worth and meaning
that can never be lost.

May the memories of their lives 
shine forth like the brilliance
of the skies above
as we rededicate ourselves
to their memories now.

Turn our grief and anger into resolve 
fill us with strength and will and purpose
that we may once and for all 
end this endless night.

Never let us forget
our sacred responsibility 
to ensure that all are housed
and clothed and fed;
let us never stop fighting
for the basic essential dignity
of every living, breathing soul. 

Ba’al ha’rachamim tastireihem
b’seter kanfecha le’olamim.

Source of all compassion,
inspire us to extend your shelter
across this land and throughout the world
that all may know the blessings
of safety and security now and forever.

V’nomar, and let us say,
Amen.

For Hanukkah: Al Hanisim/For the Miracles

Strikers struggle with National Guardsmen at the Loray Mill Strike, Gastonia, NC, 1929

Celebrating the joy at the heart of every triumph,
and the fortitude that follows every defeat,
we offer our praise:

for those who danced in the streets,
for those who didn’t live to see the victory
but never gave in;

for those who toppled the tyrants,
for those who resisted the oppressor
knowing full well the cost;

for those who rededicated the Temple,
for those who learned how to live
in the wake of its destruction;

for those who made it home,
for those sustained
by the sweet dream of return;

for those who kindle the lights,
for those who meet your gaze  
in the deep darkness;

for all these miracles and more,
we dedicate our lives  
to those who fought before us;

sustaining us even when all strength is gone,
urging us on and on until
liberation is finally won.