Tag : marcia falk

January 16, 2020 by

Prayer, Illuminated

Inner East

I’ve never been a morning person, but not long after moving into an apartment with large windows facing the rising sun, my life changed. I would instinctively wake up to watch the colors gradually brightening from midnight blue to the dawn’s splashes of pinks and purples across the horizon. As the metallic magenta ball rose in the sky, I would sing Modeh Ani, the morning prayer of thanks. As my living room became awash with golden light, I would pray with more fervor than ever before, knowing my day is a gift, one I took for granted a little less today.

In the first tractate of the Talmud, the volume of Berachot, “Blessings,” that debates the hows, whys, and whens of prayer, the Rabbis discuss the where of prayer, instructing people that no matter where they are, they are to “direct their heart” towards the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even when physically incapable of facing that direction in body, the “orientation of the heart,” kivun libo, is paramount. I considered this when reading the introduction by Marcia Falk to her gorgeous collection of illuminated poems and blessings, Inner East (Oak & Acorn Press, available at https://www.marciafalk.com/innereast.html). In her introduction, Falk describes how her lifelong dream of pairing her visual art with her already popular poetry and prayer collections (The Book of Blessings, 1996, previously reviewed in Lilith, was endorsed when she recalled the time-honored tradition of placing a Mizrach sign (“East” in Hebrew) on the east wall of synagogues in Western countries, to indicate the direction of Jerusalem. A heart-orientation reminder, if you will.

It reminded me of my morning sunrises, and how a visual reminder of the awe-inspiring nature of the Divine enhances my prayers with every cue. In the introduction, Falk notes that the words zericha, “sunrise,” and mizrach, “east,” share root letters. The mizrach pnimi, the “inner east,” is the place where the self rises, from where it radiates.

Although the book is technically divided into two sections—Poems “The Earth and Its Fullness” (a direct quotation from Psalms) and Blessings “Of World and Time,”—the truth is every poem reads like a blessing or prayer, and every blessing is a poem.

“We Know Her,” a resounding prayer to the “her” that is Spirit, the Divine, God, or Goddess, reads like a mystic’s spiritual wanderings, encountering the Divine in every step in nature.

We breathe her as she lifts to the sky

the scents of the newly furrowed field,

and feel her touching our forehead

in our fevered dreams.

Poems of earth, clouds, wind and community meet prayers that echo the traditional liturgy of old, with language that is shaped just as beautifully as the accompanying visual landscapes.

It’s this beauty of language and encapsulation of meaning that has made Falk’s original Book of Blessings a reference point for me in those sacred morning moments, during uninspired evenings, or before preparing to lead a prayer service. (Two years ago, on its re-release, I listened to Falk at Romemu in New York City laugh and breezily discuss her prayer practice, God as feminine, and the importance of keeping services short (shock! horror!). That earlier book’s evolution into Inner East blossomed from a decisive turn—after the original Book of Blessings publication, coinciding with the author’s fiftieth birthday—to return to visual art, pairing her two lifelong passions of writing and painting.

The morning blessing, accompanying a glorious sunrise painting and Hebrew words closely aligned to a traditional liturgical prayer, Nishmat, “the breath,” is simple, divine, every word carefully balanced.

The breath of my life

will bless,

the cells of my being


in gratitude,


For those already in love with Falk’s artistry through carefully chosen words, in both Hebrew and English, that build on and expand the framework of traditional prayer with inclusive, egalitarian language, vivid descriptions, and evocative descriptions of nature, it is a treat to witness these delicious phrases alongside gorgeously crafted paintings, reproduced in full color in a prayerbook that merits upgrading to coffee table status. Transforming the art of prayer into vivid images of color is a reminder that no matter where we are, all it takes is a small cue for us to guide ourselves to our own Mizrach, to our Inner East.

RISHE GRONER loves to pray. Her writing can be found on www.thegene-sis.com and on Instagram @thegenesisters.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments

July 15, 2014 by

A Woman’s Tashlich

thedaysbetweenIt’s been 18 years since Marcia Falk, renowned Jewish feminist scholar and poet, brought us her groundbreaking The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, a prayer book that not only uncoupled liturgy from patriarchal themes and imagery, but that gave women —and continues to give women —contemplative, gender-corrective ways to connect to the sacred.

In Falk’s new book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season (Brandeis University Press), she takes us further down the same spiritual path, reminding us that it is good to experience “the turning of the Jewish year” in nature, and that it is holy to immerse ourselves mindfully in endings and beginnings, in solitude and in relationships. “What kind of life will we live in the time we have?,” Falk asks. “Where in our life will we find purpose and meaning?” 

Falk underscores that the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Aseret Y’mey T’shuvah) is intended to be a continuous devotional span; “ten days of meeting oneself face-to-face, opening the heart to change.” The word “between” in the book’s title palpates one of women’s special strengths: connection. Alas, we humans cannot stop time —we can’t make our six-year-old stay six forever, or bring a beloved deceased person back to life —but we can strive to be “fully aware of our connectedness to everything in our world,” and in that way live ourselves into “wholeness, serenity, and fulfillment.” 

I asked Marcia if she would take a walk with me, for tashlich, along a river’s edge, using five poems from The Days Between as guideposts. (Tashlich is the ceremony in which Jews throw crumbs into the water to symbolize casting away our sins. In The Days Between Falk calls her new ritual Nashlich, which is gender-inclusive, “we will cast,” rather than Tashlich, “You [God, masculine] will cast.”) In the pages that follow here, she does this, helping me journey spiritually through her translations of poems by the well-known Hebrew poets Zelda and Leah Goldberg, and by the less well-known Yiddish poet Malka Heifetz Tussman. We begin our walk with Falk’s own poem, which revisions Micah 7:19, the biblical verse that opens the traditional tashlich. As we recite and then discuss the poems, they become cast as a prayer cycle. (I have distilled our conversation.)

Each of the poems, says Falk, “uses the archetypal sym- bol of water as revelatory, transformative, and redemptive.” Each “explores time, change, and mortality in the context of intimate relationships; and in each, water is given a voice. Zelda’s sea sings, Goldberg’s river hums, Tussman’s creek babbles.”

Reader: Take a walk with us. Put some crumbs in your pocket for tashlich, and find a serene place alongside water…water that eddies or babbles, water that cascades or crashes, water that hardly ripples. Enter “the between,” give voice to a conversation with your life, move forward along the meridian of deepening t’shuvah.

Hey, you! Come along, too. 


We cast into the depths of the sea our sins, and failures, and regrets.

Reflections of our imperfect selves flow away.

What can we bear,
with what can we bear to part?

We upturn the darkness, bring what is buried to light.

What hurts still lodge,
what wounds have yet to heal?

We empty our hands,
release the remnants of shame,

let go fear and despair
that have dug their home in us.

Open hands, opening heart —

The year flows out, the year flows in.

—Marcia Falk 

MARCIA FALK: The High Holiday language is full of power and terror, and the verse from Micah that we recite for the traditional tashlich ritual is vivid, almost violent, asking God to hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea. I have a different image of the new year, of life and change. A wave comes to shore and then pulls back, there’s ebb and flow. Is it only our “sins” that we need to let go into the sea?

SUSAN SCHNUR: In the third stanza of Casting Away, you ask, “What can we bear?” Help me understand this.

FALK: For example, can I bear to live with the knowledge that I was mean to my child? Can I accept the “mean” parts of myself? Can I forgive myself?

SCHNUR: And then the poem asks, “With what can we bear to part?”

FALK: Yes. What can we let go of? I’m in the process of clearing out 20 years of clutter from my house, and I’m overwhelmed. I have to look at each thing: Can I part with this? Can I part with that? It can be hard to let go, to stop looking backwards. This is the time of year when we want to be able to walk into the new, but the old holds us hostage. Can we “release the remnants of shame,” let go the despair that has “dug [its] home in us”? The holiday is about perfecting ourselves —but not everything can be changed. Can we accept ourselves?

SCHNUR: Okay, here’s what I want to personally ponder in the palimpsest of this poem: This year, can I live less reactively in life’s ebb and flow? 


When I set free
the golden fish,

the sea laughed
and held me close

to his open heart,
to his streaming heart.

Then we sang together,
he and I:

My soul will not die.
Can decay rule a living stream?

So he sang
of his clamoring soul

and I sang
of my soul in pain.


FALK: Now we come to “Facing the Sea,” in which the speaker finds this Other —the sea —that is so unlike her. The speaker is quietly suffering, but the sea is noisy, laughing, bubbling over. Nature is completely alive, always alive —this noisy sea, embrac- ing us, holding us close.

SCHNUR: “My soul will not die”—they sing together about their shared immortality, that dying never conquers life. But the speaker remains so alone. The “Other” can only comfort us up to a point. Is that right?

FALK: The speaker lets something go —“the golden fish,” what- ever that is —and she is embraced. Then the speaker and the sea sing together, but their voices are very different. This poem, for me, is about being in pain and trying to find comfort.

SCHNUR: Here’s what I think I need to think about here: Can I learn to accept someone else’s imperfect love? Can I sing with the universe? 


Even for the little ones like me,
one among the throng,
for the children of poverty
on disappointment’s shore,
the river hums its song,
lovingly hums its song.

The sun’s soft caress
touches it now and then.
My image, too, is reflected
in waters that flow green,
and in the river’s depths
each one of us is deep.

My ever-deepening image
streaming away to the sea
is swallowed up, erased
on the edge of vanishing.
And with the river’s voice,
with the river’s psalm,
the speechless soul

will sing praises of the world.

—Leah Goldberg 


FALK: This poem and the next are from a sequence by Leah Goldberg called “Poems of the River.” In the first poem here, a tiny blade of grass sings to the river. We all feel, at some time in our lives, that we’re “on disappointment’s shore,” that we are insig- nificant, “children of poverty”—a very touching phrase for me. But nature can comfort us —“the sun’s soft caress.” The river, in fact, takes our “images” —our faces, our selves —and deepens them.

When our mind quiets down, we get to sing “with the river’s voice, with the river’s psalm,” and we finally feel ourselves part of everything. Water here is wholeness, vitality, moving, streaming away to the sea.

So many of us experience ourselves as small—“even for the little ones like me” is such a poignant image. Why does the little blade of grass want to assure us that the river hums for us, too, lovingly? The blade of grass itself becomes our comforter.

SCHNUR: I love the rushing compassion of this poem. I want to say, “Yes, yes. Don’t leave without me!” This poem makes me want to think about the spiritual challenge of trust. Can I trust that everything will be okay? 


He who carried off my golden autumn,
who with the leaf-fall swept my blood away,
he who will see my spring return

to him, at the turning of the year —

my brother the river, forever lost,
new each day, and changed, and the same,
my brother the stream, between his two banks
streaming like me, between autumn and spring.

For I am the bud and I am the fruit,
I am my future and I am my past,

I am the solitary tree trunk,
and you—my time and my song.

—Leah Goldberg 

FALK: Ah! Here we find a less quiet voice, the self-possessed voice of the tree describing its relationship to the river. We don’t normally think of “blood” [in the second line] when we think of trees; we associate that with animal life, and when the animal is drained of blood it dies. The image is shocking, even suggestive of domination and submission: the river carries away the tree’s life-blood, yet the tree returns to the river again and again. Or, another way to look at it: perhaps the voice is defiant; it will not die, it will return, year after year.

There’s movement, a shifting of perspective. In the second stanza, the tree and the river are kin: the river streams, like the tree, between seasons. But in the last stanza the tree lets the river know that he, the tree, is solitary, whole in himself: “I am the bud and I am the fruit, I am my future and I am my past.”

Then, at the end, there’s a powerful reversal. The tree no longer addresses the river in the third person—as “he,” as “my brother”—but says, “you—my time and my song.” We aren’t solitary after all. There’s always “the other,” we exist in time, vis-à-vis the other. What is my voice if I’m just talking into the emptiness? I don’t have a voice unless I’m speaking to you. 

SCHNUR: This poem breaks my heart. The tree is learning how to move from Martin Buber’s “I-It” relationship —separate, detached, full of defensive bravado—into an “I-Thou” relationship—of mutuality, of reciprocity, of touching interdependence. This challenge hits home for me: Can I learn to be more empathic and more yielding in my relationships? 


I stroll often in a nearby park —
old trees wildly overgrown,
bushes and flowers blooming all four seasons,
a creek babbling childishly over pebbles,
a small bridge with rough-hewn railings–
this is my little park.

It’s mild and gentle
in the breath-song of the park
and good to catch some gossip

from the flutterers and fliers.

Leaning on the railing of the bridge,
seeing myself in clear water,

I ask, Little stream,
will you tumble and flow here forever?

The creek babbles back, laughing,
Today is forever:
Forever is right now.

I smile, a sparkful of believing, a sighful of not-believing:
Today is forever.
Forever is right now…

—Malka Heifetz Tussman 


FALK: This last poem is a little touch of mameloshn [Yiddish] in the middle of my book. Once again, water gives us its wisdom. The speaker talks to a stream, sweetly, as though to a child: “Little stream, tell me. Will you be here forever?” Human beings want to know! Are we going to live or die? What’s coming next?

And the creek laughs: Why are you asking such a question? This is what there is! “Today is forever.” The poor creek to have such a foolish disciple!

SCHNUR: Yes, how can we humans think about ourselves with- out thinking about the fact that we will die?

FALK: In every nature poem, there’s a dark thread. I like this poignancy; so much of Jewish liturgy doesn’t acknowledge it. I’m talking about sadness. There’s awe, fear, trembling, God is big, we’re small, all of that. The Kaddish: we exalt You, we enlarge Your name. How does that help one feel better? You’re sorrow- ing, you’re grieving, and what does the liturgy give you back? A big silence. Not much comfort. These poems by Jewish women offer us more.

SCHNUR: This poem asks the biggest question perhaps. Here go my last breadcrumbs into the water. How can we acknowledge life’s sadness? Can we do so and smile? 

Sections in blue are excerpted from “The Days Between: Blessing, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season,” © 2014 by Marcia Lee Falk.


Continue Reading

  • No Comments

December 9, 2010 by

Balm in Gilead

Lynne Feldman, www.lynnefeldman.com

I feared it would be awkward to talk by telephone, she so many thousands of miles away, barely able to respond. But the words pour out of me — a groundswell, a flood. I talk and talk, trying to tell her what her life has meant to mine these 47 years, from the summer we met, two New York girls, not quite 17, in (of all places) northern Wisconsin, until this September when, 10 days apart, we turned 64. When I pause for a breath, she says, in a low voice but distinctly, todah — thank you. Twice more I pause; twice more she says todah.

I don’t want to tire her, but I can’t stop holding on. Finally her daughter comes back on the line. She tells me that Beth hasn’t spoken more than a few words in the last two days, and they aren’t sure what she comprehends. But I believe Beth has heard me, just as I have heard her. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt her presence from afar; ours has been a friendship that has survived more than one kind of distance.

We met in 1963, in a Hebrew-speaking summer camp where our daily schedule included an eclectic array of classes: we read the Babylonian creation myth alongside Genesis, studied Maslow’s post-Freudian theory of “self-actualization,” learned modern Hebrew poetry from an Israeli woman with an enchantingly musical voice, and were instructed by Shaul, an Israeli ex-scout, how not to chop wood: Af pa’am lo al haritzpah — never on the ground! (Hardly a life-changing experience, but in its anomalous quirkiness, it lodged itself in my memory.) My seventeenth summer was a magical time, filled with new discoveries and temptations (my first real kiss, my first taste of delta 8 THC) and peopled with unforgettable characters. But Beth — soft-voiced, gentle-mannered, with a smile that revealed a radiant inner joy — was the jewel in the crown. Every day, between classes, we’d sit on the sun-warmed grass and do what teenage girls do best: talk, and talk some more.

We had much in common, not just in background but in interests, among them, a love of literature that would stay with each of us our whole lives. But our personalities were strikingly different — opposites attracting. Although neither of us was lacking in adolescent joie de vivre, Beth’s was a quiet enthusiasm, coupled with an easy and natural optimism. If I had to choose a single word to describe her, then and now, it would be “grace” — in Hebrew, hen. My own demeanor (as I’d been told more than once) was “intense,” my moods changeable. I threw myself into life and had joy in many things, but I was also susceptible to bouts of fretfulness. If I was sorrowing or brooding, Beth’s words filled me with comfort and light.

At summer’s end, Beth invited me to visit with her family in Gilead, their 200-acre tree farm in the Catskill mountains. I had heard much about Gilead from Beth, but there was no way I could have imagined its beauty. When I stepped out of the car and inhaled the crisp blue air, its stillness lightly punctuated by the calls of late summer’s birds, and took in the harmony of meadow, woods, and pond, vistas all around, it was love at first sight and scent and sound. Did I sense, at that moment, that Gilead would become my life-long sanctuary and that its devoted stewards — Beth’s parents, Lillian and Paul — would become family to me? How could I have known that my vision of marrying under a huppah on Gilead’s lawn would be fulfilled a quarter-century later? Glorious Gilead was where our friendship unfolded and blossomed, and where it continued to be nurtured over the years to come. In our walks together along the stone walls bordering the woods, we were cocooned in intimacy, sharing the stories and confidences that best friends share.

For five years following that first summer, throughout our senior year of high school in different cities and four years of college in separate states, Beth and I remained close, maintaining our connection through Gilead excursions and correspondence. But after college our lives branched in opposite directions, and not just geographically. Beth stayed in New York for a while, then headed east to Jerusalem — while I went west, to California. It was the late sixties, a time of enormous changes in the American social and political landscape, and California was at the epicenter. The new wave of feminism engaged both my intellect and my passion, and I soon became disenchanted with the patriarchal order and many of its engraved traditions, such as the “nuclear family.” With the ardency of a new convert, I tried to impress upon my best friend the benefits of raised consciousness. But the women’s movement had yet to reach Israel and wouldn’t get there for another decade; Beth must have been, at the least, bewildered by my letters. So far away from each other, in such different environs, with no opportunity for face-to-face conversation, we fell prey to mutual misunderstanding. One example: Although we were each of us single and living with female housemates, we looked upon our situations rather differently. When, in one of her letters, Beth made the comment — innocent enough, from her perspective — that she was tired of living alone, she meant that she wanted a male life-partner. But I was dismayed by what I took to be the implication that women friends didn’t count, and I retorted that living with other women was not living “alone.” I didn’t receive a reply to that letter. Had I, in my advocacy of the ideal of Sisterhood, ruptured the bond with the closest real sister I had?

Within three years, Beth was married, but by then our correspondence had tapered off, and I found out about the wedding after the fact, from her parents. I was saddened to have missed such an important event in my friend’s life, and I regretted my part in creating the distance that had arisen between us. But I had no idea what to do about it. Beth and I had lost much of our safah m’shutefet — our common language — and I didn’t know where to find it again. So I did the only thing I knew to do: I tucked the friendship into a corner of my heart, and held it there, for safekeeping.

A decade and more passed, during which Beth and I saw each other only sporadically, even during the two year-long periods when I was living in Jerusalem, not far from her doorstep. Beth’s husband and I had not yet — how shall I put it? — learned to love each other across our differences, and this created a dilemma for Beth. (Ezri wasn’t exactly a fan of my feminist beliefs, nor, probably, of the ardor with which I advocated them. Happily, though, he and I bridged the distance between us at a later stage, when I turned to him to be a Hebraic consultant for a book I was writing. How ironic — or was it poetic justice? — that The Book of Blessings was a feminist re-creation of prayer!) And, too, Beth was raising children (ultimately, she was the mother of four) and I wasn’t sure where — or even whether — there was room for me in her world. Had she forgotten me? I kept hoping we might find a way to be more present in each other’s lives, but our orbits didn’t intersect, and it was not to be.

And yet, Beth remained, for me, still, the friend dearest to my heart. I knew I could never lose her. And I didn’t.

How to explain this? Is it enough to say that, like most young loves, friendships that burst forth intensely in adolescence have a way of embedding themselves in the neural pathways? Or is it that Beth and I were born soul-mates, our friendship as bashert as any marriage made in heaven; that we were, simply, meant to be in each other’s lives?

Part of the explanation is surely the magic of Gilead, a place that welcomed and embraced me continuously over the course of almost five decades. Gilead was not just the site of my wedding; it provided the m’saderet k’dushin — the officiator — in the person of Beth’s mother. I gave my son the middle name “Gilead” and brought him to his namesake often as he was growing up, so that he too became part of the intergenerational circle.

Beth had given me Gilead, and Gilead gave me back Beth, over and over again: each hike on its trails, each swim in its pond, each session of blueberry-picking brought me close to her, whether she was present in person or not. If, for periods of time, the friendship seemed suspended, Gilead reminded me that the connection was still there. And, in truth, Beth and I always found our way back to each other with remarkable ease. There was never a conversation that didn’t seem to pick up right where we had left off.

The geographical distance is hardest now, at this time of perhaps our greatest closeness. This far away from her, I can’t know, at any given moment, if Beth is still among the living. I find myself wondering what I’ll feel when the news finally arrives. Will the moment stun? Will it be numbing? Or will it come as a relief, putting an end to the waiting, allowing the full grieving to begin? I’ve already faced the hard facts: we won’t be taking any more walks together, or writing impassioned letters, or even talking long-distance on the phone. The last conversation I had with Beth will, it seems, be the last conversation we’ll ever have. And it will have to be enough. Now, in this window of not-knowing, is my time to practice not needing more.

One of Beth’s sons has told me that, even after she was admitted to the hospital, too weak to stand, Beth never lost faith that she would get up and stand again on her own two legs. This doesn’t surprise me. Just three months ago, unable to contain my yearning for things to be different from the way they were, I blurted out to Beth, “I want you one-hundred-per-cent well” — to which she replied calmly, confidently, “I will be. I know it’s not rational, but I believe it.” One could call this denial, one might opine that she deprived herself of the chance to say good-bye.

But Beth doesn’t need good-bye—and I no longer need to say it either. Her last words to me speak for both of us: todah, three times todah

27 September 2010 / Khol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5771
Berkeley, California


Postscript:  5 October 2010 / 28 Tishrei 5771
The moment has come. It is neither numbing nor a relief, but more stunning than I could have imagined. An ocean of grief, and no more words.

Marcia Falk is the author of The Book of Blessings; The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible; and other books of poetry and translations. She is working on a book for the High Holiday season and has returned to painting, her first love. www.marciafalk.com. 

Continue Reading

  • No Comments