Episode 9: How to Tackle Huge Projects; on Talmud and Haiku creation w/Rabbi Avi Strausberg
Rabbi Avi Strausberg is the Director of National Learning Initiatives at Hadar, and based in Washington, DC. Previously, she served as the Director of Congregational Learning of Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota. She received her rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College in Boston and is a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She also holds a Masters in Jewish Education. While pursuing her studies, Avi was honored to serve as a rabbinic intern at Kehillath Israel and Temple Sinai.
She has taught students of different ages and backgrounds at Kehillath Israel, Temple Sinai, Makor, and Hadar. Additionally, Avi has worked as a chaplain intern at Hebrew Senior Life and organized an anti-trafficking campaign as a rabbinic fellow at T’ruah. Energized by engaging creatively with Jewish text, she has written several theatre pieces inspired by the Torah and maintains a Daf Yomi haiku blog in which she writes daily Talmudic haikus. Avi is most grateful for her wife Chana and two children Ori and Niv.
We began our conversation by discussing what it means to take on such a project of enormous proportion and what the creative process of putting together an artistic synthesis of the holy texts she studies is like. One of the questions I asked Rabbi Avi is if there are rough drafts or even such a thing as working towards a perfect haiku. To which she responded:
“I would say my haikus at this point are sort of all half finished sketches that could be re-written and re-written a million times and then would be much better… and sure what I’ve ended up with is 17 syllables but it’s not the best 17 syllables that I could have come up with... of the thousands and thousands of haikus that I’ve written, I would say that once in a while I write a haiku where there is a piece of text where there is a really good one, one that I feel connected to.”
- Rabbi Avi Strausberg
When Rabbi Avi said this it reminded me of a William Faulkner quote that says:
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”
Not only does this long-view, slow and steady marathon-style perspective serve the process of creativity in general and for writing poetry more specifically, but even more so, it aids in the ability to stay committed to a 7.5 year long text study where you don’t let perfectionism get in the way. Out with the old expression of “practice makes perfect” and in with the new of “practice makes better.”
I also spoke with Rabbi Avi about what it means to confront sexist or misogynistic ideas within the Talmud. There are a handful of resources available to folks that want to do the Talmud study project of Daf Yomi and many of those podcasts or resources are put together by men… men that do not pause and acknowledge the challenges within the text. But then there are also projects like the Daf Yomi for Women podcast which also do not spend a lot of time on these difficult questions that some could spend semesters or years unpacking, nevertheless there are moments of acknowledgement that the ideas expressed in the text are problematic and need further reflection later on.
“death will set her free,
finally her own woman.
where will she begin?”
- Rabbi Avi Strausberg
On this topic Rabbi Avi and myself discussed the two main options that we all have when we encounter ideas that run counter to our values. One option is to excise and permanently erase those ideas. Or the second option is to realize the power of our contemporary voices and add them on top of the previous generation’s voices like the geologically layering of rocks upon rock. Each new layer makes the whole enterprise that much stronger. It's what the Talmud did by adding its voice by interpreting Torah and it is what our generations must continue to do by adding our voices to the Talmud.
Lastly, we concluded our conversation with some resources for those that are interested in following up this conversation and would like to continue the learning:
For some books recommended by Rabbi Avi Strausberg, check out:
“Dirshuni - דרשוני- Israeli Women Writing Midrash” by Tamar Biala
“A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales” by Ruth Calderon
Anything by Yehuda Amichai
“The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog“ by Alicia Suskin Ostriker
“Moon Is Always Female“ by Marge Piercy"
“The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion” by Shai Held
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