#BlogElul 18 – Rabbi Heschel’s Prayer

August 24, 2013
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(Photo credit: Egan Snow)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In Selma, Alabama, I learned to pray with my feet.”

In English, we have a tendency to use the words “religion” and “faith” as interchangeable, and it is possible that it works for some religions, but for Judaism, it most emphatically does not work. Jews believe many different things: at the extremes, I know good Jews who are thoroughgoing atheists, and equally good Jews who have regular conversations with a God for whom the pronouns are male. The only real deal breaker for normative Judaism is monotheism: if a person believes in multiple gods or subdivisions of God or persons-within-God they are over the line.

Deeds, including speech, are another matter. I am still a Jew, but I cannot claim to be a “good Jew” if I stand by while my neighbor bleeds, if I do nothing while the vulnerable go hungry, if I do not pursue justice. That, with monotheism, was the great message of the Jewish prophets:  see chapter five of the prophecy of Amos if you doubt me.

So it is appropriate today, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, to remember that we  pray with our feet, our hands, our keyboards, our wheels, our habits of consumption, and our speech to and about others.

Let us pray.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.


Fear and Humming: a Cancer Scare

June 25, 2013

English: SAN DIEGO (Sept. 22, 2008) Lead Mammo...

It all started six weeks ago when I found a lump in my right breast. My regular mammogram was coming up, so I figured OK, I will just keep the appointment. That was the wrong plan, because insurance being what it is, I needed to have a different kind of appointment with different approvals for a mammo with an actual bump. Oh.

I got the callback for Mammo #2 after a week. (Yes, I had to wait for the results on #1 before they could sign me up for round 2.) Round 2 was more mammography plus an ultrasound.

That trip to the radiologist was scary. I thought I was pretty calm at first, but when techs kept “going to check with the doctor” and then coming back to take more images again and again, I got very nervous. The last verse of Adon Olam [Master of Time & Space] played over and over in my head:

B’yado afkid ruchi
b’eit ishan v’a-irah
V’im ruchi g’viyati, 
Adonai li, v’lo ira.

In English:

Into your hand I trust my soul,
When I sleep and when I wake.
As with  my spirit, my body too:
God is with me and I will not fear.

Then the tech asked me to hum.  It was the first thing she’d said to me in a while.

“What?”  I was startled – you want me to what? 

“Hum, please, it will help us see details.”

So I hummed what was in my head: Adon Olam.  It was weirdly comforting. It was also just plain weird.

She snapped a few more pictures and then let me get dressed. Off I went to wait for another report. I got yet another callback: time for an “ultrasound guided needle biopsy.”

That time, no singing.

And finally, good news: it’s benign, probably a bit of damage from last year’s car accident. Whew.

The whole adventure took 6 weeks. My beloved life-partner, Linda, was a wonderful support. I can only imagine what bells were going off in her head as a two-time cancer survivor. I told a small circle of people what was happening, and they were solid: my rabbi, my cantor, a couple of friends.

I learned some things about myself. I was afraid, so afraid that I couldn’t admit I was afraid. The ancient words of Adon Olam became my mantra, insisting that I will not fear. I clung to the words, and to the tune, and to all of it because it was a fixed point in what I feared was about to become an unraveling world.

Did I believe “God is on my side so I will not have cancer?” Of course not. The fixed words of the prayers were a handhold on the familiar, on the things that endure. They were comforting precisely because they had been hummed by so many distressed Jews before me. They were comforting to me because they were a statement of faith that whatever happens, I am not alone.

I believe that God is the ultimate mystery; I do not presume to say much of anything about God on my own. What I do believe is that I am not alone, that goodness will be made manifest to me through the actions of good people, and through the blessings of creation, which is itself good. (Gen.  1:31) And I do believe that the traditions of Judaism link me to many of those people, and to a particular experience and appreciation of life.

Adonai li, v’lo ira.

In a way, it’s a whistle in the dark. I choose to believe that at the heart of the universe, there is goodness. Even had it been cancer, even had it been very, very bad, my life has meaning.

Adonai li, v’lo ira!


Prayer of the Broken Heart

June 23, 2013

English: Women with Broken Heart

How is one to pray with a broken heart?

Many of the best known Jewish prayers are prayers of praise. Sometimes the words of these prayers are hard to say when we are hurting, or when there is something we desperately  need. Blessing God – the simplest form of Jewish prayer – is counter-intuitive when we are in pain.

There is a kind of prayer that is not so well known, but it can be helpful when we are in the depths.  That sort of prayer is lamentation. When we make a lament, we list our pains and our disappointments. We own those parts of our unhappy state that are our own fault, but we also list those things that are simply lousy luck or the malice of people over whom we have no control. We make a list, and we hold it up before God. We say, “See? I hurt!”

A prayer of lament is not magic. It will not bring back the dead or mend what is broken, any more than the lament of the speaker in the Book of Lamentations brought back the dead or freed the slaves of Jerusalem after its destruction. So one might ask, what’s the point?

The point of such prayer is not that it is guaranteed to change the situation – many things cannot be changed. However, the prayer can change us.

In making the whole, long, miserable list, we are going to notice things we did not notice before, because we were so lost in pain:

  • Since we are not making this list for anyone but ourselves and God, there is no need to minimize or exaggerate our troubles. We can simply state them as facts, and move towards accepting them as facts.
  • We may notice that some things really were beyond our control: the recession, the fire, the illness. We can say, as Job did to his comforters, “I did not choose this. It is not my fault.” We can reject foolish theories about “attracting” misfortune or illness.
  • We may notice that some things were indeed our own doing. That is not a pleasant discovery, but at this point, it is simply another fact. Perhaps we need to work on teshuvah [repentance] or work on forgiving ourselves. By making teshuvah properly and forgiving ourselves we will be able to move on.
  • We can participate in the Jewish tradition of holding God responsible for those things that were not human actions. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it says that the ancient Hebrews cried out to God, who listened to their cries. In the wilderness, they complained (a lot!) David complained in several of the Psalms. And in modern times, prisoners in Auschwitz actually put God on trial for failing to keep the Covenant.
  • Sometimes making this list will allow us to let go and cry. Sometimes there really is such a thing as “a good cry.”
  • With the calm that comes from really accepting that things are “that bad” new possibilities may emerge. Perhaps pride or shame was getting in the way of accepting help.
  • Telling the truth about our lives is an act of intimacy and dignity. Whatever your understanding of God – whether you address God very traditionally as Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the World] or you address the “still small voice” within your own heart, it is movement towards something new.

Have you ever made a prayer of lament? What was your experience with it?


Why Pray for Healing?

May 22, 2013
Photograph,early 1900's,by one of the American...

Photograph,early 1900′s,by one of the American Colony Photographers,of the Kotel in Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the beginning of Numbers chapter 12 we have a famous story. Aaron and Miriam gossip about Moses. God calls all three – Moses, Aaron and Miriam – to the Tent of Meeting and makes it clear that Aaron and Miriam are out of line.  When the Presence of God departs, they see that Miriam is covered with scales. She has been stricken with tzara’at disease: her skin has turned white and is flaking everywhere. As such she must be banished to live outside the camp until the disease clears, if it clears.

Aaron is overcome with guilt and speaks to Moses as if his brother were God himself: “Master, please do not hold this sin against us: we were foolish, and we sinned. Let her not be left like this!” Moses turns to God, and voices a simple prayer, El na rafah na la – “Please, God, please heal her.”  God answers that she will have the tzara’at for seven days and may then return to camp.

Often when we tell this story we focus on the part where Moses prays and God responds to the prayer.  Many of us pray this same prayer for our loved ones who are sick. Indeed, it is part of Jewish tradition to pray for the sick.

However, the story as written is not a story about miraculous cures. Aaron, who has seen Moses “work miracles” many times, turns to Moses for magic:  “Please, Master, let her not be left like this!” Moses does not stop to argue with Aaron about magic or miracles. He turns away from Aaron, to God, and prays for his sister, “Please, God, please heal her.”

God’s answer is not the answer either brother wants. Miriam will not be healed immediately; her illness will run its course.  What God gives them is some relief from uncertainty: eventually she will be able to return to the camp.

When we pray for healing for our loved ones, we may feel like Aaron, panicked and wishing for a magic cure.  Or we may be like Moses, hoping for God to work a miracle. Usually, though, as with Moses, our prayers are not answered with miracles. Disease runs its normal course and chronic illness is chronic. The refuah shleimah (“complete healing”) we pray for is perhaps more properly translated “a restoration to wholeness.” Prayers for the sick are not magic. What they can do is turn our hearts to the sick people in our community so that they are not stuck indefinitely “outside the camp,” isolated and ill.  Sometimes a refuah shleimah means a cure, and sometimes it means something more subtle but no less miraculous: an arrival at a place of peace with circumstance and life.

May all those who are suffering in body or spirit find a true healing, a state of wholeness, and may we all reach out to them with love and shalom.


If God is Not a Vending Machine, Why Pray?

May 21, 2013

English: This vending machine was made by Nati...

“Keep us in your prayers.”

Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb said these words last night to TV anchor Rachel Maddow, when she asked what concerned viewers could do for the victims of the tornadoes that ripped through Moore, OK yesterday. According to his official biography, Mr. Lamb attends a Baptist church. I don’t know anything about Ms. Maddow’s religious affiliations. And yet I know in my gut what Mr. Lamb was saying to Ms. Maddow, and her serious nod in reply made sense, because we’re all Americans and we say these things when things are so bad that there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do.

What is it we are asking for, when we ask for prayers? My guess, from Mr. Lamb’s affiliation, is that he hopes that viewers will direct words or thoughts to God that will influence or inform God’s choices over the next hours and days. I do not want to make light of Mr. Lamb’s faith, any more than I’d want him to make light of mine. My faith works differently, however. (I feel odd calling it “faith,” but again, we’re Americans and that’s the lingo.)

When I tell people that I will keep them in my prayers, I am absolutely serious about that statement. I call their names to mind or may even mention their names aloud when I say my daily prayers. However, I do not expect the prayers to influence God. For starters, the one thing I know for sure about God is that I know bubkes [nothing] about God. God is beyond my little brain. I take my directions for my behavior from Torah, which suggests that even if my brain is too limited for God, it is good to pray daily, and it is good to use that time to pray for things that concern me.

So why pray, if I think that God is beyond my imagination? I pray because I am a limited being. I pray words that have been said for generations, that have shaped the thoughts and attitudes of Jews through the centuries. When I pray for people, I grow my compassion for them. I meditate on their sorrows, and my heart grows bigger. Will my prayers affect the fate of people in Oklahoma? I don’t know for sure. What I am sure of is that it is good for me to have compassion for them, it is good for me to think of them as part of my circle of concern. It will be good for me, should I ever be so unfortunate as to be in a disaster, to know that other people far away care about me. But it will also be good for me to have learned, from prayer, that I am not the only person in the world with troubles.

God is not a vending machine. I cannot put a prayer in and get what I want. God is not even a bad vending machine, that takes my prayer and gives me what it wants. God is beyond me. But in praying for those in trouble, I strengthen the bonds of humanity. When I pray, I remind myself that I am not God.

When I pray, I remind myself that I am my brother’s keeper, no matter how different our politics, no matter how different our ideas about things like “God.”


The Jewish Cure for Guilt

April 11, 2013
Open Gate

(Photo credit: Open Gate Farm)

Rabbi Channanya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, what is the meaning of the verse (Psalm), “As for me I will offer my prayer unto Thee in an acceptable time “? He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.” - Devarim Rabbah, II.

I’m a perfectionist, very hard on myself. If I goof up, my anger with myself is beyond all reason. This is a not attractive, but it is the way I am.

When I was a young woman, I believed that mistakes were fatal. Mess up, and no one will ever love me again.  Ever.  Go to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200.  The real problem, of course, was getting me to ever love me again. And in the meantime, because I was flopping around in an agony of guilt, I’d hide or lie or get defensive, or do anything to try to escape getting a cross word from someone else, because I thought I couldn’t bear it – I was already my own private Spanish Inquisition. In the meantime, the wrong would compound like interest in a banker’s wildest dream: the person I offended or hurt would be more hurt.

Judaism offers me something wonderful: an actual plan for dealing with my mistakes. It gives me the gift of teshuvah (repentance.) When I make a mistake, when I do something wrong, I just have to follow the steps of teshuvah:

LEAVE THE SIN  I have to recognize that what I did was wrong and I have to resolve to make teshuvah.

REGRET I have to be genuinely sorry and embarrassed that I did such a thing.  This step I do quite well – a Catholic childhood and a Jewish adulthood add up to a finely tuned duet of guilt. My trouble was that I used to stop here, wallowing in misery. This is not the place to stop!  Move quickly to the next step:

SINCERE APOLOGY AND REQUEST FOR FORGIVENESS I have to go to the person I offended or hurt or failed in some way, and take responsibility for my actions. Taking responsibility also means listening to their reaction. Then I have to ask for forgiveness.

CONFESSION BEFORE GOD Then, having apologized, I have to go through the whole thing again, aloud, before God. Early on, I was suspicious of this step; it seemed excessive. I have found, though, that without it I lack the resources to make a good job of the last step:

RESOLVING NEVER TO REPEAT THIS SIN This requires more than a wish; it requires a plan. I have to figure out how I am not ever going to see a repeat of this particular failure, and I have to put that plan into action.

The gift is, that when I do a good job of teshuvah, that crushing, tearing misery of guilt will lift. I will feel better, and what’s more, so will some of those people against whom I sinned.

Lately I’ve been going through a patch of sins. They’ve been largely sins of disorganization, and they have come about because my workload has increased and I have not set myself up to be adequately organized.  Other errors were not intentional, but they affected other people, nevertheless. So now I’m following up with a patch of teshuvah: noticing the messes, feeling mortified, apologizing and doing what I can to make things right, having some serious prayer sessions, and making plans for change. Not fun now, but the results are worth it: while I will always be sorry I messed up (I’d rather be perfect, after all!) I won’t feel that gut-wrenching guilt.

I’m sharing this because I suspect I am not  the only person who wants to disappear through the floor or hide under the furniture every time she fouls up.  If any of this sounds familiar, you might want to give teshuvah a try. We have a season of it, of course, every late summer and fall, but why wait? Relief from your pain is only a few steps away: the gates of repentance, they say, are always open.


More Etiquette for Bar & Bat Mitzvah Guests

February 10, 2013
English: House of the People is a multi-purpos...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, you’ve been invited to a bar mitzvah. You’ve answered the invitation promptly, you know to dress modestly, and you’ve decided what you are going to do about a gift. All those things were covered in an earlier post, Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners.  One kind reader pointed out to me that I hadn’t given enough detail about how to behave during the service, and I’ve decided to add more information. After all, if you are bothering to read this before you attend the service, you care! Thank you for caring about behaving well at a service that is, for a Jewish family, a major life event.

1. YOU ARE A GUEST. One important principle to keep in mind: you are not just a guest of the family at this event. You are the guest of the synagogue at which it occurs. A bar or bat mitzvah at a synagogue at a regular service  will include not only people who attend because it is Suzie Cohen’s bat mitzvah, but regular congregants who attend because it is Shabbat and they want to pray. The party that comes afterwards will be a private affair, but the service itself is for the congregation as well as for the family and their guests.

2. NO ELECTRONICS. It’s rude to play with your cell phone, or to allow it to make any noise at all. Turn it off, or make sure it is absolutely silent. Keep it out of sight. This is particularly important in a synagogue on the Sabbath, a day when Jews refrain from a number of activities in order to experience the holiness of the day. A “ding” (much less a ringtone made from your favorite pop song) will mar the day, no matter how quickly you squelch it.  So turn it off, and put it away. If you are a physician on call, set the thing to the least annoying possible setting and sit on an aisle near a door, so that you can easily move outside to deal with it.

3. NO PHOTOS. For the same reason as the electronics, photography during a Shabbat service is disrespectful. Depending on the family’s observance and the synagogue rules, there may be a videographer or a professional photographer present, but they have been given very strict boundaries for their work; you do not have that information. Don’t assume that because the videographer is there, it’s OK to whip out your iPhone and take a few shots. Do not take photos during the service, and ask before you take any photos before or after the service.

4. NO APPLAUSE. This is a religious service, not a performance. Applause is inappropriate and unwelcome. You can best express your appreciation for Bobby’s Torah chanting skills by sitting quietly and attentively and not dozing off.  The best appreciation you can give: remember some aspect of his drash (speech) to comment on it to him or his parents later.

5. YOUNG CHILDREN & INFANTS. If you have a very young child, it is fine to bring something to keep them quietly occupied. “Quietly” is the operative word: books are fine, but toys that inspire or require noise are not. Electronics are absolutely out (again, see #2 above.) If your child is going to be miserable in the service, you may want to consider getting a sitter for the occasion (if you let the family know ahead of time that you are considering getting a sitter, you may be able to share a sitter with another family in your situation.)  If you bring an infant, everyone understands that babies sometimes fuss. Everyone also expects that in that circumstance, a parent will immediately scoop up the baby and head for the nearest exit. Many synagogues have “crying rooms” that allow parents to see the service while dealing with a fussy infant – if you think you may need such a place, ask one of the ushers where it is when you enter.

For a Jewish family, a bar or bat mitzvah can be as significant a lifecycle event as a wedding. At such a time, we invite the people who are important to us to be with us. By inviting you to join them in their synagogue on their important day, your friends have told you that you are important to them. Thank you for honoring them by taking the trouble to educate yourself about how to behave in the service!


Why Bless?

January 30, 2013
English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a regular blogger, I’m interested in seeing the statistics that wordpress supplies about my blog, especially how many people read the blog, and what brings them here. Today I noticed that one person reached the blog by googling: “blessings for people who make coffee.”

Sadly, I doubt they found what they were looking for here (but maybe they found something else useful – I hope so.)  But it set me to thinking: yes, a person who makes coffee for others is a blessing! And perhaps we should bless them.

Blessings in Judaism are curious.  We call them blessings because they begin with the word, “Baruch” (bless).  But the Object of our blessing is always God:  Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who…[fill in the blank here.]  So a blessing for the person who makes coffee might run like this:

“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who gives strength and kindness to the person who makes coffee.”

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haOlam, sheh noteyn ko-ach v’hesed l’mi shehmechin cafeh.

“But!” you are thinking, “Why bless God, when Sally made the coffee?”

One answer to this is that Sally’s making coffee, but God made both Sally and the coffee. We bless God to sanctify the details of our lives – not because they weren’t holy before, but because by blessing, we are noticing the holiness already in them.

Another answer is that we bless God in those circumstances because we see a little bit of the Holy One in Sally, with her strength and kindness to make coffee for others in the morning.

Blessings don’t mean that we think there is an Old Man in the Sky who needs blessing.  Blessings mean that we notice holiness before us in the world, and know that holiness is a treasure worth celebrating.


Fringe Element in Judaism: The Tallit

November 11, 2012
English: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sar...

English: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter leads Jewish Services, wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawl (tallit), at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A tallit is a prayer shawl. It may be pronounced “ta-LEET” or “TA-lis” depending on the kind of Hebrew spoken.   (The plurals, respectively, are “ta-lee-TOTE” and “ta-LAY-seem.”) The shawl itself is just a shawl; the important parts of the tallit are the long knotted fringes or tzitzit (tzeet-TZEET). We wear them to remind us of the 613 mitzvot [commandments].

Jews wear a tallit for morning prayers. The person who leads prayers often wears a tallit no matter what time of day.  We get the commandment to wear the tallit from two places in the Torah: Numbers 15:37-40 and Deuteronomy 22:12.  You can learn more about the meaning and history of the tallit from this article by Rabbi Louis Jacobs.

A tallit is one of those things reserved for people who were born Jewish or who have been through the process of conversion.  The purpose of the tallit is to remind us of our 613 sacred duties (mitzvot). Only a person who is bound by those duties needs to be reminded of them.

Occasionally you may see a tallit with blue cords in the fringes. Blue is a difficult dye to find in nature. In ancient times, Jews fulfilled the direction for a blue cord by using something called techelet, a product from sea snails, knowledge of which was lost in the Middle Ages.  Recently, scholars have come to believe that techelet is a dye made from the murex, a sea snail, so some Jews have begun wearing techelet fringes again.

Tallit & Tefillin 6

Photo credit: AngerBoy via Flickr

 


Why Study Hebrew?

November 4, 2012

My first Hebrew Text

My first Hebrew text had the encouraging name Prayer Book Hebrew: The Easy Way.  My teacher had taught us the Aleph-Bet (Hebrew alphabet) using handouts and flash cards, and I was excited to get at the book.  After all, it said, “The Easy Way!” I had struggled to learn the letters, but now I was to the easy part, right?

It is a very good book, and I recommend it, but let me break it to you gently: there is no easy way to learn to read Hebrew, unless you are young enough for your brain to soak it up naturally. (If you are reading this and you are under 25 or so, you are Very Fortunate and should go find a Hebrew class pronto, before things begin to harden.)

So the question in the title is a serious one: why bother studying Hebrew, if it’s so hard?

1. Returns are high on even the smallest investment.  Every tiny bit of Hebrew you learn will enrich every aspect of your Jewish life. Let’s say you only learn the aleph bet. When you stand by an open Torah, you will recognize the letters you see. When you visit Israel, the language of your people will not be squiggles, it will be written in letters that you recognize.  Wherever you go in the Jewish world, you will be in on the secret: those are LETTERS. They mean something. If you keep on paying attention, you will begin to recognize words.

2. Hebrew connects us to every other Jew on the planet. If you can learn to say “B’vakashah” (Please) and “Todah rabbah!” (Thank you very much!) you will be able to be polite to Jews everywhere. The more Hebrew you learn, the more you can communicate with Jews who speak Spanish, Russian, French, Farsi, or Hungarian. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you and I both speak a little Hebrew, we can have a good argument.

3. Hebrew connects us to other Jews across space and time. When I say “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad” (Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one) and I understand what I am saying, it enriches my prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched at Selma, said that prayer in those words. Hannah Senesh, who wrote poetry and died fighting the Nazis, said that prayer in those words.  Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, said that prayer in those words. Rabbi Hillel, who lived when the Temple was still standing, said them too, exactly that way. When I pray in Hebrew, my voice blends with theirs.

4. Hebrew is one key to feeling like an insider in this tribe. One does not need perfect fluency to feel a part of things in a Jewish community, but if you don’t know a resh from a dalet (clue: the dalet has a tushie) it is easy to feel left out.  That last sentence was an example: the people who know that resh is  ר and dalet is ד  are smiling at the tushie thing.  Now see?  You are smiling too.

5. You will make friends studying Hebrew. Research shows that people bond when they go through a challenge together. Want to make friends at synagogue? Take Beginning Hebrew. By the time you make it through the aleph-bet, you will have some friends.


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