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A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition

Praise for A Spiritual Life

"Reading Feld, you burst out laughing one minute and wipe away tears the next. Mostly, we recognize ourselves--the messy, complex, uncertain yet precious threads which make up the fabric of our lives ... Feld offers an attention, a connection to one another and to tradition that values the present and the eternal." -- The Jewish Times

"Rarely have I enjoyed the intellectual pleasure I experienced when reading Merle Feld's A Spiritual Life. An inspiration to all of us to take seriously the imperative that the spiritual and the ethical must be intertwined." -- Susannah Heschel, editor of On Being a Jewish Feminist: A Reader

"Stories and poetry so captivating, powerful, wise, you will never be the same. An extraordinary achievement!" -- Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of Kabbalah: A Love Story

"This book cannot be pigeonholed ... finding spirituality in the everyday, Feld names experiences shared by many women, yet seldom fully articulated, or articulated this clearly and well." -- Judith Plaskow, author of Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective

"Merle Feld has written a wonderfully moving tribute to the multifaceted nature of the human soul. Her poems and stories touch something deep within me." -- Blu Greenberg, author of On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition

"Down-to-earth, honest, courageous ... One traverses the years by her side and is moved as she comes to realize that everything is poetry, that the magic of life lies in its minutia, in the supermarket, in underwear. `Don't forget,' she implores, `we were all at Mount Sinai together.'" -- Hadassah Magazine

"This readers' guide is a feast for widely diverse book groups with its wonderfully provocative questions that inspire deep reflection and heart-to-heart sharing." -- Rachel Jacobsohn, Founder, Association of Book Group Readers and Leaders

The Necessity of Poetry in My Life (chapter 3)

The poet, as she journeys, is like a human camera. She takes in the details—the smell of the Shabbos cholent, the glistening sweat after the wedding dance, the sound of the dirt as it hits the coffin. All the details are collected, stored away by the poet. And then she sits, with pen, with paper, and makes a record, a particular picture, along the road we travel.

In some of my poems, attention is drawn to empty spaces, to silences that were crying out all this time, to characters who seemed invisible though they stood right before us. Sometimes attention is drawn to the absence of God. These poems may be wistful, or angry, or anguished. Alternately, other poems capture moments in which God—that spirit which sustains us, which nourishes us—seems present in the world, at least in the frame of the picture, and that presence is celebrated.

Many of these poems are prayers—not in any conventional sense, but rather in the most primal sense.

What is a prayer? A prayer is the articulation of some very particular facet of the core of one's being, flung out into the universe. Perhaps it finds a mark, perhaps not. The essential thing is the articulation and the flinging.


Beginning Again (chapter 2)

When I was a child—I don't think I could have been more than five, and Roger then maybe seven or eight—my mother got a new clothes hamper. I don't really remember the old one, but it must have been beyond repair for my mother to have allowed herself a new one. It was winter, a snowy winter, the hamper was then perhaps a week or two old, and Roger, always a curious boy with an experimental bent, apparently began to wonder if snow would burn. So he scraped some snow off the windowsill and snuck it into the only private space we all had—the bathroom. Then he lit a match, or I suppose, a number of matches. Of course he didn't manage to "burn" the snow, but he did manage to set fire to the lid of the new hamper. When the excitement died down and Roger had been lectured on children playing with matches, my mother produced a bit of floral Contact paper and quietly recovered the now charred and ugly lid of her new hamper. Every year or two after that when she was recovering a kitchen counter or the seat of the kitchen step stool, the hamper would get spruced up again as well. My mother was very good with Contact paper.

What is this story doing in this book, a book about spirituality, about Jewish feminist spirituality? Well, this is a book that tells what I know about the life of spirit, how I've searched for it, how I've found it and lost it, been wounded and been nourished. What makes spirit grow, what shrivels it. My mother loved Roger with all her heart, and she wasn't the type to bear a grudge anyway, so for her and for him the story of the hamper became one of those classic stories that tell something important and funny and slightly embarrassing about what you once did as a kid. But for me, an observer and not a player in this drama, it taught a different lesson. The hamper was something you had wanted, a small thing really, but you wanted it and it gave you pleasure and then it was ruined and you didn't have the power to replace it, to wipe away the injury and forget it. You were stuck with it in its ruined state and three or four times a day when you went into that small bathroom, right in front of you was that scarred hamper, its ugliness Contact papered over, but there underneath just the same, a reminder that taking pleasure in even the smallest luxury made you vulnerable. The pleasure was fleeting, the disappointment lasting. The lesson? Want little, buy less, control your needs, contain your needs. Not that it works, not that you can do that really—those impulses will break through any way they can—but the impulse is a vise around the spirit, whispering: make your needs small, make yourself small. You have no power, you know nothing of power. You're not powerful enough to fix anything, to change anything. Know your place, stay in your place. The lesson of poverty. Death to spirit.


Passion (chapter 5)

How rare, when the love between two people is easy, when it opens like a flower and you say what you feel and the words are heard the way you thought you said them. I remember thinking, when I was in high school, when I was in college, that my awkwardness was somehow a part of this adolescent/young adult stage of life. I thought, when I'm an adult, fully a woman, I'll be graceful in expressing love, in making connection. But the truth is, all too often, criticism, rebuke, angry words jump out of us unbidden. The truth is, misunderstanding is the norm: it's always hard to express love.

What are we afraid of? We are afraid of making ourselves vulnerable, we are afraid of being in pain. We are afraid of looking foolish. We are afraid of unleashing powerful emotions, we are afraid that in opening a door, crossing a threshold, we will open a neediness that has no bottom. We are afraid of being misunderstood, we are afraid of being rejected.

The truth is, it's always hard to make connections, not just when we're young and inexperienced but for the whole of our lives it demands a leap of faith and great courage…

The first time we made Shabbos together

The first time we made Shabbos together
in our own home—
it wasn't really "our home"
it was your third floor walk-up
and we weren't even engaged yet—
I had cooked chicken,
my first chicken,
with a whole bulb of garlic—
my mother never used garlic—
and we sat down at that second-hand chrome table
in the kitchen.
It was all so ugly that we turned out the lights.
Only the Shabbos candles flickered.

And then you made kiddush.

I sat there and wept—
Oh God, you have been so good to me!
Finally, for the first time in my life,
you gave me something I wanted.
This man, whose soul is the soul of Ein Gedi.
We will be silent together,
we will open our flowers in each other's presence.

And indeed we have bloomed through the years.

kiddush – blessing over the wine
Ein Gedi – a spring and oasis in the Judean desert

© Merle Feld, A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition SUNY Press revised edition 2007

Be sure you purchase the revised edition and check out the new book’s last chapter, The Readers’ and Writers’ Guide – it’s a rich and delightful resource for book groups, adult ed exploration, and for solo journaling.