Berkeley scholar offers revisioning of traditional holy days prayers, practices

There is no mention of God in Marcia Falk’s new book, “The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.”

The book is a counterpart to the Berkeley-based author, poet and scholar’s “The Book of Blessings,” which has become a staple in progressive congregations worldwide.

Marcia Falk

The absence of God per se in the book is part of “a long evolution,” Falk said, “but even in ‘The Book of Blessings,’ I wasn’t using ‘God’ anymore.”

That book, published 18 years ago, took her 13 years to write. Even then, Falk’s feminist and inclusive perspective made it natural for her to drop terms like “Adonai Eloheinu” that for her had become “such a dead metaphor,” even to the point of “becoming idolatrous.”

“ ‘God’ comes with so much baggage, and that is not what my liturgy is about,” she said. “And by the time I went from ‘The Book of Blessings’ to this book, it became clear to me that I didn’t want to talk about theism of any kind any more. … I was trying to make a plea in this liturgy for those of us who want to participate in tradition and don’t believe in God.”

Yet “The Days Between” is anything but irreverent or soulless. In her lyrical re-imaginings of the traditional prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with Hebrew and English on facing pages, Falk conveys a rich spirituality and introspectiveness through simple, concrete language whose soaring metaphors are deeply grounded in earthly experience.

Falk’s take on the Unetaneh Tokef prayer (with the solemn lines “who will live and who will die”), which she addresses as a scholar in an addendum to the book, is a powerful reworking through the themes of repentance, prayer and charity. “Born in nature,” she writes, “and borne by nature, we die in its lap-and-fold. The whole lives on, infinite in mystery, its manifestations numberless.”

Falk precedes these sonorous cadences with a deceptively simple lyric, “Opening the Heart,” which she describes as “a stepping away from what we know, a kind of movement into something more open, more unknown, taking a chance and opening into something.”

Of the book’s consistent themes of teshuvah (repentance), forgiveness and mortality, Falk said, “The [High Holy Days] season is completely immersed and steeped in awareness of mortality. It comes at a time of year when everything is turning dark. … We are one year closer to our death, we are preparing for winter, [which is] a kind of preparing for death.”

As for repentance, she views teshuvah as “a kind of returning back to the self that ultimately can and does lead to our turning toward the other, and back to the self again in a kind of circle. … Self-awareness, vidui [the traditional Hebrew ‘confession’ of faith when death is near], self-care can lead to awareness of the other, a better understanding of the other, and how understanding of the other enriches our understanding of ourselves.”

Falk finds the traditional liturgy for the High Holy Days,  “almost paralyzing. So much beating up of yourself, so much humiliation. Especially as women, it isn’t exactly what we need.”

Individuals and congregations over the years have found Falk’s liturgy very much to their needs. In her workshops on poetry and prayer, and in letters from readers she’s never met, she often hears that her work has changed lives.

“I think what that means is that I’ve made a place for them to find themselves within the tradition, I’ve opened it up so there’s room for them,” she said.

“One of the things I’m trying to do is break down the divide between the secular and the religious, [with] respect for the ways in which we find meaning in life.”

In addition to her works of original liturgy, Falk is renowned for her translation of Song of Songs, and of women poets writing in Hebrew and Yiddish.

Her method of steeping herself in original texts for years at a time speaks to her background as a Stanford Ph.D. in English and comparative literature, a Fulbright Scholar and postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the product of a Long Island, N.Y., home in which both parents made sure she received the best of both Jewish and secular education.

What many of her readers don’t know is the fact that Falk, who studied at the Art Students League in Manhattan, has been a passionate painter since childhood. This may be a foundation for the richly tactile quality of her words. “Every life is uniquely an infinitude of images,” she said. Her own watercolor, “Gilead Apples,” adorns the cover of her new book.

Marcia Falk will discuss prayer during the High Holy Days at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept 23 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael.



the Heart”

by marcia falk

At the year’s turn
in the days between

we step away
from what we know

    wall and window
    roof and road

into the spaces
we cannot yet name

    cloud and sky
    cloud and wings

Slowly the edges
begin to yield

the hard places

    wind and clover
    reed and river

The gate to forgiveness