Finding the Light: Hanukkah Here and There

Until last year, Hanukkah hadn’t much spiritual juice for me. How surprised I was then to experience a profound sense of rededication as I celebrated Hanukkah with friends on my home last December and then again in July on a return trip to Israel.

You can read my essay on the experience, which appears in the latest issue of Our State magazine. Thanks to Louise Flynn for inviting me to contribute to the issue.

Nowhere to Hide: Reflections in the Aftermath of the Tree of Life Mass Killings

Following the Tree of Life mass killings, we’ve had many opportunities to come together, Jews and the broader community, to grieve and mourn and to support each other. My latest piece for Good Letters is based on remarks I offered at a gathering of students, faculty, and administrators at UNC Asheville on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. This gathering preceded and cut into a program we had already scheduled. Leslie Sachs, Director of Women of the Wall, was visiting us to speak about gender equity in Israel.

It was a powerful convergence of events. We came together to respond to hatred that leads to violence and to learn and draw inspiration from a courageous leader who is working with heart, mind, and spirit on behalf of the rights of Jewish women around the world. The work of Women of the Wall is about many things, including bringing an end to unjust practices and dangerous divisiveness that is a threat to all of us.

Welcome to Tel Aviv

My latest piece for "Good Letters", "Welcome to Tel Aviv," was written not long after my return from my most recent trip to Israel--before the Knesset passed the problematic "nation-state bill." A threat to the democratic principles on which the state was founded, the bill, among other things, downgrades Arabic to a language with a "special status" rather than as one of Israel's official languages.

Twenty percent of Israel's population within the green line are Arabs. During the trip, we heard an Arab-Israeli journalist, native of Israel, resident of East Jerusalem, express his strong feelings that as an Israeli-Arab citizen who pays the same taxes as Israeli-Jewish citizens he should be entitled to the same support as Israeli Jews: infrastructure, education, employment. The downgrading of the status of Arabic is a further insult to Israel's Arab citizens. That's just one of the troubling features of this new bill. Nonetheless, my love of Israel is strong. As an American Jew, I want to do what I can to contribute to the state, to help it realize the ideals set out in its declaration of independence: 

"THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."

It's significant that Jews have a "homeland." (Jews are at home in many places, but there is something different about Jews living in their ancestral home.) It's crucial, I believe, that we do all we can to help that "homeland" live up to the highest Jewish values.

On the Path to Freedom

My latest short essay, "On the Path to Freedom," is now available on Good Letters. You can find it here. The piece is inspired by a story told by a guest at the seder my wife and I hosted on the first night of Passover this year. Running through the piece is the acknowledgment that one may experience the desire to turn back when one is on the path to freedom. If you've ever felt like like turning back, this piece might be of some interest to you. If you've never felt like turning back, this piece may offer you some insights into those of us who have felt that way. Enjoy!

To Be Read At the Seder, 5778

Hi all,

Here's a poem, inspired by a friend's request, for this year's seder.

To Be Read at the First Seder, 5778

                                      Richard Chess

Tonight, again, we are leaving.
We are leaving without carrying straw,
though we breathe straw dust and see
through a veil of straw dust as we follow
the one who, before us or within us, draws
us toward her, toward him. After frogs, after
cattle sickness, after blood, we are left
with only a drop of will. We neither trust
nor challenge our leader. We are dragged
along, pulled by a mystery
without a name, and we know not
where we are going, to the edge
of a continent or to the end of the universe
as we know it. Blood has been slashed
on doorposts, the names of black angels
have been scrawled in blood on streets
of our cities. The blood of every suffering
shunts through our hearts as we crawl
through the darkness of history. Pharaoh
claims every star, ever pebble of time, every
grain of eternity as his own. Can we still believe
that the rain falls for us, for our crops, can we
believe that each new moon calls our women
to worship, or are these just lies we tell
ourselves to keep our lungs filling and emptying
with what can’t be seen but sustains us?

Tonight we are leaving. The stories of women
expose the small hands of rulers. Refugees
move through us, and we cannot tell
if we are dreaming. We have abandoned belief
in the ordered world, and the orders
that have been handed down to us
and that are enforced by overlords.
We have so little to call our own now
we are nothing more than open borders
that refugees without papers, without names
in this world, cross without hope or fear.

Let us hope that the border that keeps hate in
and love out will open tonight. Let us hope
that hate will dissolve when it is met
with love rushing across when the border patrol
is disbanded, the passport control agents
step out of their uniforms, freeing their bodies
to be bodies among bodies, each wondrously
strange and as familiar as all of God’s creations. 

But now we are just leaving. Leaving the sweet
cucumbers and onions we have known. Leaving
the roles that had been assigned to us
for so many centuries that we have forgotten
whether we were made slaves by God or man. 
For now, we are simple creatures leaving
the only room we’ve ever known as home.


Speaking of Faith in Lit at AWP 18

Amy Frykholm, Shadab Hashim, Amy Gottlieb, Rick Chess

Amy Frykholm, Shadab Hashim, Amy Gottlieb, Rick Chess

I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at AWP 18 on the challenges and opportunities of talking about and exploring matters of faith in the literary community as well as in our own work. The four of us who presented are now working on an essay in four voices. We'll see how (and if!) this turns out! For now, I want to share with you a small sample of observations offered by my wonderful co-presenters.

"I am always preoccupied by questions of faith and doubt, tradition and innovation, and above all, how we engage with the mystery of human existence," Amy Gottlieb, author of The Beautiful Possible

Amy also shared this rich insight from the late Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld:

"In his memoir, Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld writes: 'Literature, if it is genuine, is the religious melody that has been lost to us. Literature gathers within it all the elements of faith: the seriousness, the internality, the melody, and the connection with the hidden aspects of the soul.'” 


"As a writer whose sensibility is tethered to Muslim heritage— visual art, architecture, garden-design, calligraphy, poetry and music-- I recognize beauty to be the lever, the primary language of devotional love in Islamic arts," Shadab Hashmi, author, most recently, of Ghazal Cosmopolitan: The Culture and Craft of the Ghazal.

Shadab went on to share the following,

"As Rumi says:
I can't stop pointing
to the beauty.
Every moment and place says,
'Put this design in your carpet'

Beauty as a language for contemplating the divine comes directly from the Qura’an."

"I would prefer that faith perspective be considered something more like a location than an identity, said Amy Frykolm, author of Rapture Culture, Julian of Norwich, and See Me Naked and associate editor of The Christian Century. "As an identity, it seems potentially static and perhaps too confining for the open process that, as writers, we are engaged in. As a location, it seems that it  is something that we are invited to explore. From a location, within a location, there is the potential for movement."


Finally, from my remarks:

In Man's Quest for God, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The self gains when absorbed in the contemplation of the non-self, in the contemplation of God, for example. Our supreme goal is self-attachment to what is greater than the self rather than self-expression.” Is it possible that some of us also hope that through our process of writing we will move from an attachment to a small sense of self to something greater than self-expression? And that we hope the reader, too, will be moved, by our work, both more deeply into her self and toward something greater than and beyond that self?

We had a rich and wide-ranging conversation. I look forward to continuing the conversation in writing and in person.


Thank You, Hollins; See You Soon, Tampa

hollins 2.JPG

I have been fortunate to have been invited to a number of universities this year to lead contemplative practice workshops for faculty, staff, and students. In Oct. 2017 I was hosted by my dear friend, colleague, and teacher LeeRay Costa at Hollins University. We did some meaningful work during my visit which culminated in a lively conversation, in the final hours of the visit, among Hollins faculty and staff about ways they already are incorporating contemplative practices in their work--in the classroom, in the library, elsewhere--and ways they could expand their use of contemplative practices. If my visit offered the Hollins faculty and staff nothing other than an opportunity to get together, do a few exercises, and then have a lively, passionate conversation with each other, then, I think, it was worth it. Create conditions for folks to connect meaningfully and deeply, then get out of the way. That's how I like to work.

Next week, I'll be at the University of Tampa to lead workshops for faculty, staff, and honors students. I'll also be doing a reading while I'm there.  The faculty workshop will focus on practices of setting intentions, directing attention, and reflecting on our experiences. With the honors students, I'll be leading a session called "How the Light Gets In: Making Room for Bodies, Hearts, Minds, and Spirits in the Honors Classroom and Beyond." And with the staff, we'll work on experiences of scattering and gathering. Thanks to my dear friend and teacher Don Morrill for inviting me back, yet again, to the University of Tampa. Don's new book, Beaut, a novel, recently won the Lee Smith Novel Prize sponsored by Carolina Wren Press. Don and his wife, Lisa Birnbaum, author of the fabulous novel Worthy, will be in Asheville to read from their work on April 3, 2018.

Since beginning my career as an educator, I've always been interested in creating transformative experiences for my students and myself in the classroom. That, at least, has been my intention. Sometimes it has happened. Sometimes it hasn't. Sometimes I've been aware that it's happened. Sometimes it's happened without my being aware that it had. The approaches I took in the classroom were never informed by a methodical study of pedagogy. I worked intuitively. I still work intuitively. But now I have more to draw on in developing approaches to teaching. For one, I can draw on my own experiences with 10 years of formal meditation practice. For another, I can draw on the inspiration of colleagues around the country who have invited their experiences and knowledge of contemplative practices to point them toward ways of teaching that can create conditions in which deep learning can happen.

I'm grateful for opportunities to work with colleagues and students in ways that I hope will help open minds and hearts, lead to new insights, to greater compassion, and to action, doing the outer work that our world so badly needs at this time.