September 21, 2018

Revelation

Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the LORD had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19:16-20)

Once I believed
revelation was a sham,
a cheap magic trick
to make the failures of science
disappear. But then I thought,
What about the truth
we cannot see?

Then I believed
revelation meant peeling off
layers of illusion, sharp and painful
as an onion, until the buried
truth inside made people cry.
But then I thought,
What about kindness?

Then I believed revelation
must be a lightning bolt
that split the body in two,
planting wisdom at the base
of a person’s spine,
a tiny fire taking root. But
then I watched as that fire
consumed my first love.
It ate him whole. I thought,
There must be a gentler way.

Now, I am making a new
catalogue of revelations.

Revelation of standing
at the kitchen counter
carefully rolling the shell
of a hard-boiled egg
beneath my palm
to crack it without breaking
the smooth white orb inside
for my daughter’s lunch.

Revelation of the purple
and yellow lilies’ slow
unfurling year after year
in late spring beside
the small green cottage
in my backyard
where I teach girls
to chant the Torah.

Revelation of
my students reading
those ancient stories,
bringing the words to life
in their sweet young
mouths, until the day when
each one says, in her
own time, actually,
I think it should go
this way, and then
writes her version.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher based in Portland, Ore. She currently is working on a memoir. Her second poetry book, “Fruit Geode,” will be published by Augury Books in October.

Between the Zen Monastery and the Shooting Range

This cabin in the mountains
is exactly halfway
between the Zen monastery
and the shooting range.

Sometimes I hear
the echoing pop
of a gun going off,
and sometimes I hear
the resounding
silence of meditation.

Do the monks use
those tiny explosions
as calls to awareness,
I wonder? Do they ever
drop by the range?

After all, they are hunters
of mindfulness, and the hunters
are monks of survival.

And the rest of us
are a little of both,
building walls around
our quiet privilege, holding
our weapons tight.

It’s spring again
and in front of the cabin
lavender reaches
for the sky, waiting
to unfold its little
purple sail.

The monks say,
when you find yourself
holding on tight, that’s
how you know
it’s time to open.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Telling Time in the Wilderness

Photo from PxHere.

We often have tunnel vision when we’re in a difficult place. “I just need to get through this,” we say. And it’s true — whether it’s biblical Egypt or a rough patch in our own lives, sometimes we need to focus our resources and attention on getting ourselves safely to the other side.

But once we get through, where are we?

Occasionally, we jump straight into a new chapter of life feeling fully resolved and at peace. But more often, when we exit crisis, we land squarely in transition. We find ourselves wandering in the wilderness, just like the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt.

My college professors in the ’90s were fond of the phrase “liminal space” — that threshold betwixt and between, neither this nor that. This term was so common that I began to suspect this love of liminality was an academic trend. Perhaps border spaces had been disregarded for years and only now were being rescued from obscurity?

But, of course, my postmodernist professors were not the first to pay attention to liminality. In fact, the fourth book of the Torah takes place almost entirely in liminal space. In English, the book is titled Numbers, but in Hebrew, the book is called Bamidbar, literally, “in the wilderness.”

I’ve long been captivated by this image of rotting manna. What can it teach us in our own times in the wilderness?

In Bamidbar, an entire generation finds itself newly freed from oppression, but also newly uncertain about its day-to-day life, not to mention its future. No longer fearing for their lives, the Israelites begin to discover things about themselves that could not emerge while they were still struggling just to survive.

For example, the Israelites discover that when faced with physical discomfort and uncertainty, their mood quickly can turn from joy to petulance. They also begin to feel out the heights and depths of their spiritual lives — from a new relationship with the Divine, who leads them in a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, to experimenting with idolatry in the Golden Calf episode.

Some of these lessons must have felt good in the moment; others were likely excruciating. All of them were crucial in the formation of a tribe.

In the same way, when we find ourselves in a liminal space after a crisis, we encounter parts of ourselves that surprise us. After a move; or in early parenthood; after initiating a necessary breakup; or having recovered from the initial stages after a loss — at these times we learn things about ourselves that can be discovered only in the wilderness.

During this time, we also are open to profound spiritual lessons because we’re liberated from our routines and with them, our complacency. The manna that fell from heaven during the Israelites’ journey is a perfect example of this. It is as if God is saying, yes, you need to eat, and I will help you with that, but you also need to learn to be less anxious, and I will help you with that, too.

And so, according to tradition, the manna appeared each morning like dew, it tasted like each person’s favorite food, and — my favorite part — if they gathered more than one day’s supply, it simply would rot. (Except for Fridays, when they could gather two days’ worth to avoid working on the Sabbath.)

I’ve long been captivated by this image of rotting manna. What can it teach us in our own times in the wilderness?

To me, the deepest teaching of the manna is a teaching about time.

We must be present in the moment, for time cannot be saved or stored. It can be experienced only as we live it, as it runs through our fingers.

When this mysterious, magical food appeared one morning, the Israelites asked, “Man hu?” (“What is this?”) This is where the name “manna” comes from — it essentially means, “What?”

The spirit of “what,” of open-minded inquiry, is the spirit of the wilderness. In walking out of our bondage, we also leave our preconceived notions about ourselves and the world. We are like children, looking around us, asking, “What is this?”

Perhaps that question itself is the secret heart of our being. Perhaps it is all we truly have.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

In Every Generation

In every generation
Each of us must learn
How to look at a stranger
And see the beloved.

In every generation
Each of us must find
The invisible security gate
Guarding our heart
And break it.

And so in every generation
We drink teardrops
From curls of parsley,
Teaching ourselves to taste
Our secret sorrows.

We burn our tongues raw
With bitter herbs, learning
To taste the suffering
Of our neighbor.

We break the matzo in two
And across its surface,
Broad and tan as the desert
Seen from above, we spread
Charoset to remind us
That only together can we be
Liberated: strangers, neighbors,
Our own hidden selves, mixing
Together the bitter and the sweet,
Spoonfuls of chopped-up apples
And walnuts on our tongues,
The cinnamon scent of freedom
Filling the desert at last.

In Praise of Airport Chapels

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Out in the world, we humans build palatial, splendid places of worship. Notre Dame, the Dome of the Rock, the Abuhav Synagogue in Tzfat; these magnificent structures are tourist attractions in their own right, drawing people who want to experience grandeur and beauty, monuments to the human religious spirit.

Airport chapels are the opposite. These humble oases of calm are like little poems in space. They are easy to miss.

Yes, sometimes they are fancy, light-filled, gleaming, with complimentary yoga mats (I’m looking at you, O’Hare). But more often, they’re simple, even shabby: just a small plain room with some chairs, some prayer books, prayer rugs, and a printed-out announcement for weekly mass taped to the door.

Despite their simplicity, airport chapels are powerful. I love them. They never fail to transform my journey.

Last week, for example, I needed a way to pass a half-hour at the Atlanta airport. Airports are liminal spaces, and layovers doubly so; you’re not home, and you’re not where you’re going, either. You’re just…somewhere in between. And having left Oregon at 5 a.m., I was bleary-eyed and over-caffeinated.

But we humans have other needs, too. The need for ritual, for quiet, for peace, for meaning. And that’s the magic of the airport chapel.

I scanned the building map, hoping I would find one. It turned out to be right there in Terminal E. The door was open and I walked in, past the man bowing on his prayer rug near the entrance. I wriggled my shoulders out of my backpack, sat in the center of a row of empty chairs, and took my first deep breath of the day.

In that small island of sacred space at the center of the Atlanta airport, I whispered my prayers 15 feet away from the stranger who whispered his, touching his forehead to the rug, lifting his body again to stand tall, then bowing again.

It was a small space, but we guarded each other’s privacy. We did not visually acknowledge each other; I don’t know his name and we will never see each other again. And yet there we were, praying in the same small room, whispering beneath our breath as if we were performing a quiet duet in praise of the divine.

In ATL, hanging at the front of the room is an illuminated image of a kneeling stick figure, surrounded by a simple mosaic. It’s sort of a mashup of airport signage and cathedral stained glass. This graphic, in its profound simplicity, seemed to represent the two of us, praying there.

Strip away the particulars of our lives and you are left with the human body, bowing before all that we can never quite comprehend. It is beyond our grasp, yet at the same time, we can go deep inside and find its presence. This extraordinary journey is a gift of being human, and it is free and open to all. All you need is breath, time, and — if you’re lucky — a quiet place to sit, kneel, bow.

Airports are perhaps the most utilitarian of our modern spaces. They take our American mania for productivity to a new level. No one visits airports for beauty, or community, or solace, or meaning. We’re there only in order to get somewhere else. And while we’re there, we need things, so businesses sell them to us. We need food; it’s carted in wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic film. We need bathrooms; they line the halls. And our devices need electric power, so we sit on the floor like penitents, surrounding the outlets that line the bottom of structural columns, tethered by our thin white charging cords.

But we humans have other needs, too. The need for ritual, for quiet, for peace, for meaning. And that’s the magic of the airport chapel.

Here we stop and pause amidst the frantic activity of getting from one place to the next. Here we breathe and give thanks for our functioning bodies, and our miraculous human minds, which invent machines like giant metal birds to carry us to one another through the sky.

Maybe life is a layover between two celestial flights. And if so, maybe airport chapels are here to remind us of that mystery.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Thoughts On Diaspora

Photo from Flickr/ryan harvey

What does it mean to be home, and not home, at the same time?

I’ve been thinking about the idea of diaspora ever since I left the East Coast and moved to my husband’s adopted hometown of Portland, Ore., five years ago.

Let me pause for a moment to say: In an age of refugees and epidemic homelessness, having a safe and stable place to live is a privilege — although it should be a right. I know I am lucky to live here, to raise my children here.

But that’s the thing about diaspora: When one’s physical needs are met, the heart turns to the emotional ones.

I love many things about this town, and I’m certainly not here against my will, but every day I feel the distance from my family and old friends. Alongside the joy of new friends and the privilege of an actual backyard, there is a drumbeat of sadness. Two flights and nine hours of travel lie between me and my Baltimore-based parents. And so my kids see their grandparents only a few times a year. Being together on birthdays and holidays is a rare exception, and most of my oldest friends have never met my son.

The children of immigrants grow up as Americans who have never known another life, just as my children think of Portland as their only home.

I truly am grateful to make my home here. It’s just … really far from home.

I know I am not alone in this. If you merge your life with a person from another place, especially with kids in the mix, it’s fairly inevitable. Economics, love and school districts combine into a stark truth: someone’s going to be far from home.

And so here I am in the diaspora of the Diaspora. And in the way Jewish prayers long for Jerusalem, I find myself longing for New York, where I lived for 14 years. (Not that I necessarily want to move back there — just as many Jews pray to return to Jerusalem three times a day for decades, although they could just buy a plane ticket.)

Still, when I go back to visit, just walking down the street in certain neighborhoods is like watching a slide show of my life. It’s as if the city holds keys to my past: There’s the block where my grandmother grew up; there are the red brick buildings of my college; there’s the office building where I worked; and the cafes and bars where I talked for hours with friends, when we were young together. I see layers of places I loved; ghosts of lovers and teachers; doorways and corners and elevators and apartments where I became who I am now.

And yet, again, even in this nostalgia, I am fortunate. New York may be gentrified almost beyond recognition, but it is there. How many refugees think of the shops, streets, chimneys of their former homes, knowing they no longer exist at all?

There is another side to the story of this place where I now live, too. Two hundred years ago, this land was inhabited by Native Americans of the Multnomah tribe. They were almost entirely wiped out by disease in 1830, the remainder forced by the white settlers to live on a reservation two hours away.

And now, as rents continue to skyrocket, people who have lived in Portland for generations — primarily families of color —  are being displaced from the city center, fracturing their communities. I am part of this story, too.

I don’t know how to solve these complex equations of diaspora. All I can do is to try to be mindful of them as I make my way in this new home.

Meanwhile, time passes, and we grow into the places where we live. The children of immigrants grow up as Americans who have never known another life, just as my children think of Portland as their only home. And I, too, feel this place becoming part of me. Here my second child came into the world; here I make seder each spring and celebrate Rosh Hashanah each fall; here I teach Torah and plant my gardens and wake up each day a little more at home.

I think of the Jewish tradition of leaving part of a house unpainted in memory of the destruction of the ancient Temple, and the exile that followed. Perhaps this tradition is also a symbol of a larger truth.

Displacement, migration, diaspora: These are part of the human experience. We’re just lucky if we get some choice in the matter. A little heartbreak threads through every place we call home.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Mystical Teachings From the Stock Market

Photo from Pixabay

The wild fluctuations in the stock market last week, and Americans’ fear response, has me thinking about our spiritual relationship to change.

I know it’s a little nontraditional, but the truth is, I often like to think of the stock market as a sort of mystical teacher that reflects spiritual realities about human desires and the inevitability of cycles.

This theory of mine began during the Great Recession. I happened to have an artist residency on Wall Street at the time, and this proximity made the financial world seem less irrelevant to my scrappy artist life; I began to read the newspaper’s financial section for the first time.

And then the Bernie Madoff scandal broke. At first I was interested in Madoff as a sort of modern version of the Emperor Who Has No Clothes. But as more information came out, I began to be more interested in the nuances of what happened.

In physics as in stocks, in spirituality as in lasting love, we’re reminded that what goes up must come down.

His returns, in fact, were nothing special. What was extraordinary were their consistency, a straight line going up without the jagged peaks and falls of the real market. There was a general sentiment that his investors must have been extraordinarily greedy, but this is largely unfair to his victims. I began to think that instead of reflecting his investors’ greed, Madoff’s decades-long fraud reflected something essential about the American dream, and, in fact, our human longings.

People were not necessarily looking to get rich. They just wanted a safe place to put the money they’d worked so hard to save — a safe harbor, buffeted from the ups and downs of the market, of life.

But this is impossible.

In physics as in stocks, in spirituality as in lasting love, we’re reminded that what goes up must come down. And then, most likely, it will go up again. In the words of my favorite Buddhist sutra, “It is the everlasting and unchanging rule of this world … that everything changes, nothing remains constant.”

Change is not just a basic fact of life — it’s the basic fact of life. And yet with the exception of a few dopamine-loving thrill seekers — some of whom can certainly be found on the floor of the stock exchange — we humans are generally known to resist it.

Change is destabilizing; it makes us feel unsafe. Even a relatively small shift can strike fear in our hearts. The markets plunge and investors rush to sell, even though all the experts advise against it. Not a single person is in any physical danger, yet the news is on the same sort of high alert reserved for earthquakes and train crashes.

My favorite Jewish teaching on change comes from the mystics, who envision an endless back and forth (or perhaps up and down) as the basic state of existence. They believe that the state of being alive — of being itself — is ratzo v’shov, running and returning. The world is in a constant state of transition, shuttling back and forth between divine energy and worldly matter.

Our spiritual lives echo this motion, as well. We run to God, our souls drawn to the fire of transcendence, of holiness, to change our lives and find our best selves. And then we return to our own limited self, because we must, to remain alive and in one piece. And then the process begins again.

This is how we love one another, too. Studies show that although babies thrive on being close to their mothers, they need to break eye contact after a certain period of time; if the mother does not turn away, the baby will. This continues into adulthood; although times of alienation can feel like awful emergencies, they are in fact part of the fabric of love. We run to each other, to love each other; we make ourselves anew, forgetting everything that came before. And then we return to ourselves, back home to our own particular body, our story, our limits, our needs.

Ratzo v’shov, run and return, bull and bear, sacred and mundane, coming together and coming apart and coming together again. This is what it means to be alive.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Loving B’nai Mitzvahs

Photo from Vimeo

In American pop culture, the words “bar mitzvah” don’t exactly prompt religious awe. Instead, a cocktail of humor, pathos, anxiety and cost comes to mind.

And while these are certainly part of the picture — there’s nothing to be done about the brutal realities of being 12 — I see the whole process from a very different angle.

I’ve been tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students continually for 18 years. Most of my adult life I’ve been teaching kids to sing the tropes for Torah chanting, to lead prayers, to write their commentary on the weekly portion. I often officiate the ceremony, too, for unaffiliated families.

I don’t have to think about catering, invitations or the social intricacies of eighth grade. Instead, I have the luxury of thinking about the ceremony as a tribal initiation, a passing-down of traditions and knowledge, a confirmation of the continuation of our people.

From this point of view, I offer this small ode to the beauty of bar and bat mitzvah.

I want to invite these young Jews into the great human journey of mystery.

Sometimes my students come to the Torah Hut, a little free-standing office in my backyard lined with holy books. Often, we meet online. But it hardly matters; either way, week after week, ancient melodies come to life in the air between us.

We step into our archetypal roles as teacher and student, one of us passing on the tradition, and one of us receiving it, and each of us being changed in the process.

Our vocal cords vibrate with the same frequencies of our ancestors, our lips pronounce the same letters. We wrestle with the issues raised by the Torah portion — and invariably, my students’ questions about the text echo those of the rabbis, written a thousand years before.

But teaching Torah is only half of my job. The other half is to help strengthen the student’s spiritual life. What do they believe about the Divine? What does Judaism mean to them? How do these ancient traditions carry over into our contemporary lives? At 12, a young person is finally able to ask these questions.

These conversations have no right answer, of course. Whether a student is a passionate believer in God or a committed atheist makes no difference to me; I am here to be their guide in discovering what it is they believe.

At first, my students often have great difficulty articulating thoughts about spirituality. I explain that it’s not their fault. Life in secular America does not offer us many opportunities to talk about our own personal spirituality, and as advanced as we are with technology and academics, spiritual intelligence is underutilized in our daily lives.

So, we start with baby steps. In one of my favorite assignments, students write interview questions for their families — about “spiritual” matters but not including the word God, since that word often shuts down conversation entirely. They report the answers back to me; then I interview the students with their own questions. The resulting two hours of conversation are a window into the inner lives of the entire family, and a beautiful acknowledgment of their diversity of beliefs — simply as humans, beyond their roles as parent or grandparent or sibling.

I want to invite these young Jews into the great human journey of mystery, wonder and a place beyond intellectual knowing.

In order to stand in that sacred place, we have to remove our shoes, as Moses did at the burning bush. To be at once carefully attuned to our intuition and utterly inexpert — a skill I hope my students will remember long after their Torah portion has been forgotten.

So, when I think about a bar or bat mitzvah, I think not about cracking voices, or slideshows or theme colors. Instead, I think about the end of childhood, the very beginning of adulthood, and families in the slow, exciting, heartbreaking process of that transition.

I think about communities gathering to affirm the beautiful traditions of our tribe, the sacred words we have carried over ages and exiles, which have improbably made it to this very day and are now our responsibility to pass on.

I think about how lucky I am to get to spend an hour with a 12-year-old discussing ancient alphabets, modern social justice and the meaning of life.

And I think about how lucky we Jews are, to be given this path to walk together through one of the great transitions of human life.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Prophets of Eros

Photo from Max Pixel.

As a Jewish girl growing up in a non-Jewish suburb, I often wondered, while reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which of our neighbors would have hidden me and my sisters in their attic. Recently, I find myself asking a more adult version of this question: After profound trauma, would I have been able to find my way back to eros, to a fully lived life?

One of my favorite rabbinic legends describes the ancient Israelite women seducing their husbands while in captivity in Egypt. Pharaoh oppresses the Israelite men with backbreaking labor as a subtle form of genocide: They are too exhausted to make a new generation of Israelites.

The Israelite women realize that their tribe is in danger, and according to the rabbis, they take action. Drawing their husbands out to an orchard and gently teasing them, they lift up handheld copper mirrors, saying, “I’m more beautiful than you are!”

Both Dr. Ruth and Esther Perel lack any trace of prudishness. Both emanate love and wit.

In this midrash, the ancient Israelite women are not just heroines of tribal continuation. They also are keepers of eros. They teach pleasure despite oppression — survival of both the body and the soul.

Which brings me to today. In an era when sexuality tends more toward the commodified and the alienated, who teaches us about the inner erotic life, with its vulnerability, pleasure and its ability to transform us? Who are today’s prophets of eros?

This is not a rhetorical question. I have an answer — actually two, and both are Jewish women: Ruth Westheimer and Esther Perel.

During that same era of girlhood when I wondered about my neighbors hiding me, I also listened covertly to Westheimer’s late-night radio show on a tiny AM radio I kept hidden beneath my pillow.

My most important sex education wasn’t the embarrassing biology lessons of middle school, but “Dr. Ruth’s” teachings of how pleasure, self-acceptance and joy can be accessed through the erotic.

Perel is a generation younger, a couples therapist finding rather unlikely celebrity these days. In her beautiful, moving podcast, “Where Should We Begin?,” Perel invites us into the intimate space of couples therapy as she helps people access their connection to eros after trauma.

Sometimes the trauma is past abuse. Often it is an affair. Occasionally it is simply the trauma — for women and men alike — of living under patriarchy.

I find myself now listening to Perel’s podcast with an adult version of my previous mania for Dr. Ruth’s radio show. In fact, the two women have much in common. Both lack any trace of prudishness. Both emanate love and wit. Both possess charming accents. And both are Jewish women who grew up in displaced communities profoundly traumatized by the Holocaust.

When Westheimer was a 10-year-old girl, her father was taken by the Nazis, and her mother placed her on a train out of Germany, hoping to save her life. This was the Kindertransport to Switzerland. She would never see her mother again.

Perel was born a generation later in Antwerp, Belgium. She is the daughter of two Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors who lost their entire families in the camps. She writes beautifully about how her parents, who had lost 16 siblings between them, nonetheless taught her about joy and eros:

“Trauma was woven into the fabric of my family history (and would inspire my work for years to come). They came out of that experience wanting to charge at life with a vengeance and to make the most of each day. They both felt that they had been granted a unique gift: living life again. My parents didn’t just want to survive, they wanted to revive. They wanted to embrace vibrancy and vitality — in the mystical sense of the word, the erotic.”

I see Westheimer and Esther Perel as our modern incarnations of the ancient Israelite women in Egypt.

All of them share a prophetic Jewish women’s voice; all are guardians of eros. Their very response to trauma is finding a renewed commitment to life force, to joy — and to helping other people access their own erotic selves.

Thinking back, I remember that Anne Frank, too, wrote about finding eros. Even in her brief life, even in the very midst of tragedy.

The light and the dark intertwine. No matter how dark the past, we can recommit to finding the beating heart of eros, and remember that life can — must — still be lived in all its fullness.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Why I’m Not a Rabbi

I never thought I’d find myself in the position of deciding whether or not to be a rabbi. After all, I came from a secular family and from a young age I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer.

But after four years of studying creative writing in college and one summer working at a literary nonprofit in Manhattan, I found myself in a crisis that would eventually lead to the rabbi question.

I was 21 years old and writing was the center of my life, to the exclusion of almost anything else. A good writing day made me feel like a good person. A bad writing day made me feel like a worthless excuse for a human being. This, I began to sense, was a form of idolatry; writing could not be the most important thing in the world. Life had value apart from words on a page!

Meanwhile, I had begun to grow interested in my Jewish heritage. And I’d also begun to fall in love, inconveniently, with God.

So, at 21, I decided to stop writing entirely. Instead, I would build my life around something eternal.

I quit my job, left everything I knew and traveled to Jerusalem for the first time, with nothing but a backpack and my violin. There, I enrolled in a progressive, coed yeshiva called Pardes.

I ended up staying at Pardes for two years, studying Torah during the day and playing music in clubs or on the street at night. By the time I left, there was no question about what was at the center of my life as I prayed, studied Talmud and led Friday-night services.

When I returned to the States, I continued to play fiddle; I began to teach Torah; and slowly, very slowly, I also began to write. Like an athlete learning to hold her body correctly after a bad injury, I had to craft my sentences carefully, watching for signs of too much ego or ambition. But I was able to build a serious writing practice back into my life.

I continued to write, play music and teach Torah through my 20s, without feeling a need to choose between these sometimes disparate ways of life. But as my 30th birthday approached, I realized I was going to have to make some decisions.

What was I? An artist who loved Jewish texts and traditions or a rabbi who loved music and writing? I knew titles like “rabbi,” “musician” and “writer” were never fully accurate, that every human transcended a simple title. But I also understood that they mattered. I sensed that the path I chose would define the way I spent my days, how I paid my rent, and what was appropriate to say in public.

I found that when I leaned toward one possibility, the other self would materialize strongly. When I placed art out front, the Hebrew letters shone through, seeming to be the inner essence of that practice. But when I foregrounded the sacred books, I would feel the gentle curves of my violin’s body, notes inside my fingertips, poems burning on my tongue.

I agonized over this decision for months.

In the end, as silly as it sounds, it was cursing that finally led me to decide not to be a rabbi. I am not particularly foul-mouthed, but I wanted to be able to drop F-bombs with impunity, in my writing and in my life.

Really, looking back, I see that this was symbolic. I wanted to be able to say anything, from the esoteric to the vulgar, without the pressure of representing my people and my tradition.

So I finally recycled the rabbinical school application.

Thankfully, Judaism is not terribly hierarchical, at least in the communities in which I live and work. As a layperson, I can lead services, teach the traditions, counsel seekers, and officiate my students’ bar and bat mitzvahs.

Thank goodness for all the rabbis who bear the honor and the burden of communal representation. As for me, I’m just a wandering melamed, grateful for the tools I have to find as much holiness as I can in the world: Torah, music and writing down the meditations of my heart — from the sacred to the profane. n


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Poem: How to Sail

Scrape the curse off the parchment. Stir the broken letters
into a jar of water. Make a woman drink it: thus said
Elohim. But why: thus said Molly, twelve years old. Now I
was the teacher. We sat there, two black flames in a room
of white fire. We were sailing on a wind that passed
through the open window of a room next to the
marketplace, two thousand years ago

“How to Sail” first appeared in “Divinity School,” published by The American Poetry Review, 2015.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a poet, musician, performer and Torah teacher based in Portland, Ore. Her book “Divinity School” won the 2015 APR/Honickman First Book Prize.