Wandering in the Desert with Mishkan HaNefesh
Editor’s Note: Most of the blogs on RavBlog are written by CCAR members. Occasionally, we share a blog by a special guest with a unique message. We are pleased to share this blog by poet Jessica Greenbaum.
I’ve resisted the impulse to tour our country’s beautiful deserts because of my clashing impulse to take a swim most days of my life. These two things just don’t go together. However, caught in that life-cycle moment of watching my youngest daughter gleefully wave goodbye from the window of her freshman dorm, I vowed to set out on new territory myself. Unlike Dante’s mid-life figure of The Inferno who finds himself in a dark wood, I found my mid-life self transported to the squint-inducing sunlight of Mesa, Arizona, which highlighted the orange and red striped canyons, and blue skies of the Tonto National Forest. The “forest” part was clearly tagged on to prize its rarest asset. Like the “green” of icy Greenland. I came to the desert ranch with a tour company that specializes in open water swimming vacations. Yes, they exist! They had mapped out a week’s course through three of the dammed lakes of the Salt River, also within the national forest. So, no problem swimming, but another problem loomed. Yom Kippur fell in the middle of the only week they offered. I took 40 seconds to think. Then, like any good tourist, I paid my money and packed my machzor.
As it works out, and for reasons fascinating only to myself, I was already waist deep in the most solitary experience of the holidays that I can remember. Unexpectedly, Rosh Hashana had been without my husband and girls: just me, Mishkan Hanefesh, and my laptop open on my quilt, for synagogue livestreaming. Whatever the congregation was doing virtually on the screen, I tried to follow on analogous pages. Just when I was getting teary about the yarzheit of my grandmother, I turned the page and—there it was! Stephen Ackerman’s awesome poem, “Effortless Affection,” which begins: “All last requests are granted / and this is mine: grasp my affection / in your hand and hold it there . . .” Beshert. I had my prayer book, so I had my shul.
Well that had been okay for a Rosh Hashana Plan B in Brooklyn. But determined to hear Kol Nidre in person, I arranged that during my trip I would attend an Arizonan congregation. I brought Mishkan Hanefesh with me in case they were using some old wooden machzor—which they were. I turned to my own when my mind wandered. As uninspiring as the service was, the tiny congregation was hamishe, I was with other Jews, and I needed that. Packing my own machzor made me feel faintly ancient. All those stories of the Jew traveling from one town to another and ducking in somewhere for services . . . all I needed was a donkey.
But what to do on Yom Kippur day? I could return to the shul, but enjoying my first real vacation for nine years, shouldn’t I spend every day of it swimming with the tour? Two words stopped me: Sandy Koufax. If the great pitcher could sit out the 1965 World Series and inspire John Goodman’s line in the movie The Big Lebowski “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition: from Moses to Sandy Koufax,” well, couldn’t I skip a day? The surrounding canyon walls and idiosyncratic menorahs of saguaro cacti designed the most tasteful tabernacle from here to Woodstock. I decided to hang out with Mishkan Hanefesh. I told my fellow swim lunatics to plow on without me. I livestreamed my favorite NYC synagogue and practiced a mix of e-Judaism and reading, wandering around the immediate canyon with my MacBook open and machzor in hand, singing along. The new ner tamid looks like an apple with a bite out of it. Somehow this goes together.
Well, I never spent so long in services. Here’s what I liked about it. At that remove, I happily couldn’t miss the fantasy congregation—of close friends and family—I had never actually had. I was better able to concentrate on the demand Yom Kippur makes on the conscience. I wrote down those aspects of my personality I needed to confront. ( . . . page 2. . . .) The livestream lets viewers chat in the screen’s margin, a cyber gathering of the disenfranchised from all over the world. So you could still tell latecomers what figurative page we were on! If the NYC congregation was mumbling or otherwise leaving me behind, I could page through my machzor and find what I needed, learn what was there for me. I wasn’t bothering anyone when I fidgeted. I wasn’t thinking what I had to bring to break the fast, or if the brisket would be done. I had my prayer book so I had my shul. When the rabbi took a break for two hours, I took a little dip in the ranch pool. I know you’re not supposed to. But a little swim let me return to the pages and the services and take in what I could even if I wasn’t fasting when I was wandering. The desert and canyons surrounded. I was getting someplace, I could feel it.
Jessica Greenbaum is poet living in Brooklyn, and is the author two volumes of poetry, Inventing Difficulty (Silverfish Review Press, 1998), winner of the Gerald Cable Prize, and The Two Yvonnes (2012), which was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She is the poetry editor for upstreet, received a 2015 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2016. Some of her poems are featured in CCAR publications, including The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and Mishkan HaNefesh.