​Bereshit: the birth of an irreverent liturgist

The following is a guest post from the incredible poet and liturgist Dane Kuttler. Want to see your work featured on the blog? Send me an email!


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It was late Elul of last year, nearing the rush of the Breathless Marathon between Rosh Hashanah and Simchat Torah. When I mentioned to my coworker that I’d be missing a few days of work for the holidays, they asked, “there are holidays happening now?” My coworker is a stoic Midwesterner who grew up on some variant the Minnesota Lutheran Council of We Don’t Talk About Our Feelings, but had an endearing curiosity about religion – specifically, once they figured me out, Judaism.


I launched into an explanation that covered the basics: renewal, repair, atonement, harvest, rebuilding, celebrating. It had been a long day, and I got somewhat…colloquial in my telling. Here’s what I said that day about Sukkot:


and after you are all wrung out from that amends making and accountability-having, G-d says "ok, goest out into thy backyard and build thyself a fucking fort. and be sure to invite all thy friends to join thee in thy backyard fort for food and merriment because that is how you make the community continue after all that hard work"


I can quote this verbatim because I typed it into my phone right after my coworker left the room, and, on a whim, captioned it “From the Social Justice Warrior’s Guide to the High Holy Days, by Dane.”


I posted another one a few hours later - a treatise on t’shuvah - and then another; a voice emerged in the posts, clear and rascally and irresistible. I posted an average of six per day through the first week. Having to “teach the goyim about the holidays” allowed me some lush freedom in the telling. All I had to do was show up and unspool twenty-nine years of Jewish practice, poetry, and activism - snarkily.


Within a week, I assembled a far-flung team of Jews to help me turn the jumble into a coherent collection. We called ourselves The G!d Wrestlers, and we could stay up into all hours of the night - and did, thanks to a brutal time difference that often had me line-editing at 3am – debating source texts, cadence, cover art, kerning and the nature of prayer. Most of what I remember from that time was exhilaration, the sense of being lifted and held in love.


The story, however, is incomplete without Mr. Fox, who is as deeply coded in that book’s DNA as I am. He was my primary editor, one of the G!d Wrestlers, and we fell in love over this book - dramatic, joyous, breathless, and wild, living almost entirely in words - our editing sessions, stories, memories, phone-shared photos of book pages with our fingers pointing at specific passages. We were in love with language, the nusach and phrasing of the yamim norim; we sang to each other over the phone. We danced across the wires, leaning into the words and each other, awestruck and trusting. He read the draft during Yom Kippur, and someone asked: can I see that when you’re done?


We finished the book five weeks after I wrote that first post. It had explanations and commentary for each of the major holidays, five rituals, and an acknowledgements page that went on for eight paragraphs.


Eventually, the fervor of those days – much like the aftermath of the holidays themselves – settled and dispersed into a more normal year. The giddiness mellowed into a slower-burning warmth that held me through much of the winter and spring.


And then my mother went to the doctor about some indigestion problems and came back with a cancer diagnosis.


Not the good kind of cancer, either. It was the worst kind – the know-nothing kind. The it’s-too-rare-to-study kind. The no-answers kind.


I plunged myself into projects to keep myself from drowning: I wrote daily updates to a growing list of family members and friends, to spare my parents from having to repeat themselves every time a piece of new information came in; I called them every day; I started planning a family vacation, which included our then-new foster daughter. I cried every day, in short, productive bursts, like a cough that moves things in your chest. Like a sneeze.


surely the miracle of your body knows as well when it is time to cry as when it is time to sneeze.


The post came out of a different well, but by the same process as the initial posts about the holidays. Only this time, I had some idea of the path I might be on. I captioned it “excerpts from the as-yet-unwritten Book of Solace.” The posts continued to come.


This time, the going was slow. Painful. The shooting in Orlando happened while I was visiting my parents, my mother already frail and hairless after a straight month of chemo, and I was shocked to find I had the capacity to grieve it. I’d thought I was tapped out.  The words came as I cried alone at my parents’ rural upstate New York home – the only way I could hold my loves across the miles.


I promise you this: the ones who die afraid are the first to find peace in the World to Come. They come hurried, unexpected, desperately sniffing at the bits of earth still under their fingernails. They never wanted to leave you. The only solace I can offer is this: your memories of them will fade last.


Excerpts from the as-yet-unwritten Book of Solace


I carried on with the writing through the summer, through the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. My foster daughter prepared to leave for home. My mother’s treatment left her in weeks of pain. Trump got the nomination in a week of xenophobic bluster. Boston’s Kavod House, a holy community and gathering space – and spiritual home to several of my friends – burned to the ground in August.


And G!d says: It was never about the walls. (For Kavod House, and other joyous places in the face of destruction.)


It became a ritual: read the news – personal or global –and sit with it, letting the words sift through my rage and grief and helplessness until the ones I needed most remained. And I would share them. It didn’t work if I didn’t share them. I tried to write additional pieces privately, and they came out flat, uninspired, clunky. The pieces I wrote on Facebook, while just as laboriously crafted, had a kind of honesty and freshness to them that my private writings didn’t.

I was more alone in this, and it hurt. Mr. Fox didn’t have the same degree of intimacy with grief and mourning as he did with the high holidays, and mostly stayed around the edges. One of my early readers even suggested I shouldn’t be writing about mourning so explicitly - to name the Kaddish and grieve while my mother is still perfectly alive! I banned almost everyone from the document where we’d been collectively editing and tried to find the same sense of urgency and wonder that had fueled me through the first book. Of course, it was nothing like the first book.


I knew what color I wanted for the cover before I’d finished writing: red, the color of wet shock and grieving. Elliott BatTzedek, my unofficial chev and official G!d Wrestler, urged me to write a liturgical piece for the opening, a piece about shock. It was the most difficult part of the book. I was angry that there had been no words for me in those first moments with my mother’s diagnosis, no baruch dayan emet, no ken y’hi ratzon, nothing reflexively comforting. Elliott, fresh in her own summer’s worth of grief, carved it with me. There are more spaces between the lines of that poem than almost any other I’ve written. We needed those spaces to catch our breath.


It took the Book of Solace three months to go from first post to finished book, and unlike the Warrior’s Guide, I wasn’t sure when I was done. The end of that process was more about realizing I couldn’t keep working on it than about having a climactic finish. While I only have to reread the SJW’s Guide to recall – in my mind and in my body – the feeling of writing and editing it, the joyful rush of it – I am losing my grasp on what it felt like to write the Book of Solace. It is, for me, a time capsule of things that were once wholly significant but whose meanings are ebbing.


The thing that gives me the most hope about the Book of Solace, even as it slips away from my immediate sphere, is how others are responding to it. That maybe it’s not just a personal snapshot of my own experience, but managed to capture something that holds resonance for others who’ve been dropped on that hot, dry planet of shock and grief. Either way, it’s there – for whoever can make use of it.

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Dane Kuttler writes ad-hoc liturgy in Northampton, MA. She davens in a few places around town and spends her days as a church secretary. Her superpowers wreak too much destruction to discuss publicly.