I am so pleased to be in conversation with Rabbi Sara Brandes. Her first book, Magical World, is a spiritual memoir - a collage of reflections, poems and teachings- which draw on Judaism to engage in questions of meaning and happiness.
I first met Sara when we were twenty-one at a Jewish summer program in Simi Valley California. I remember her vividly and the impression she left as self-possessed and at-ease in her surroundings. I felt like an outsider, new to this sort of Jewish setting, at the time, so it was interesting to read, in her book, that we both spent the following year in Israel, and that it was a time of deep searching and turmoil for her as well. (I am always struck by the ways that we perceive others and ourselves.)
I met Sara again seven years later, when I was dating Dan as they were classmates in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
And now, almost a decade later, she has reappeared. I am so grateful that she has, and with her book in tow. I picked it up last Shabbat hoping for words to lift me after reading a spate of sad news. I was not disappointed. Magical World is a slender collection but it is large in hope. Brandes illustrates a generous perception of the world in which we live, God’s presence in this world, and our agency to live with meaning.
She and her family made aliyah last year, and we conversed over email about faith, feminism, poetry and surrender:
Q) I love how unabashedly you discuss God and faith in Magical World. My conversations and interactions lead me to believe that people are searching and craving this type of connection. And, yet, it is still something that seems to be in conflict with the sensibilities of many of my peers, especially in academic and artistic circles. Your faith and your book is so full of hope and I wonder if you can speak to your experience of sharing this with others.
A) Yes. My experience of my friends, those I counsel, and peers is the same as yours and for the time that I was in the States, I felt trapped by a certain veil of silence, a polite rationalism that did not allow me to freely share my faith and my experience of God and of the world. But, it’s so exhausting and so stifling.
Magical World is the celebration of and also the expression of the joy and freedom I found in coming to Israel. I could not have written it in America. For me, God is closer here. From the moment I made the commitment to come, my experience of “coincidences” and “synchronicities” became so relentless that denying them became the less rational posture for me. They were happening, whether I liked it or not, whether I believed it or not.
Writing Magical World was a coming out experience of sorts for me. It took great courage, but in its publication, I chose to stop veiling my faith with the rational, even if it meant that I stepped outside of a space where some could hear me. It is speaking my truth, without apology.
Q) When reading the book it occurred to me that almost all of my faith teachers (in person and in print) are men. You mention challenges, times in rabbinical school when you nearly dropped out thinking "I will never be a man with a beard." Thankfully, you persevered! I'd love to hear more about how being a feminist and a mother shapes your perspective as a rabbi.
A) In Israel, I use the title Rabba, not Rav or Rabbi, and doing so was and is very important to me. The glass ceiling at JTS was shattered by women claiming that they could do anything a man can do, and thank God for them, their strength, and their legacy. But, in walking in their footsteps, it was very important to me to carry the complimentary message - my femininity is the source of my power. Although I really had to wrestle my own preconceived notions of what a rabbi is and looks like, I thankfully had wonderful women who served as models and mentors for me in school. I learned feminism first from a fellow classmate, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, and two of our four deans were powerful female rabbis, Rabbis Mychal Springer and Lisa Gelber. In addition, as I discuss in the book, I would not have survived school were it not for Rabbi Eddie Feld, who is himself a great feminist and helped me to celebrate the fullness of my own voice and gifts.
Q) Some of our most ancient texts are written in poetic verse, and there are places where our bible switches from prose to poem - Miriam's song in Exodus for example. I enjoyed your use of poetry and prose in the book. Does your process differ when writing one or the other? Did you feel that certain subjects, events, feelings lend themselves better to one format over the other when writing the book?
A) I’m so glad that you enjoyed both genre. Before writing this book, I did not think of myself as someone who wrote poetry, and still would not call myself a poet (but, it took me years to take up the label “feminist,” so maybe I’m just slow with these things…). Still, the poetry is my favorite part of Magical World and the sections that feel the most true to me. The subject of the book is the ineffable, so its truth is best contained in the spaces between the words I’ve written. One would call that poetry, I suppose.
Q) Your poem "Evil," and its response to the question of the darkness in our world was especially moving to me. I adore your imperative to "Become a warrior of light" What would you say to someone who feels overwhelmed by the fractured world we live in, who doesn't know where to begin, how to be Gods hands in this world?
A) Thank you for this question. It is such a hard and important one. I relate to it deeply, especially with this recent spate of violence in Israel. First, know that the sadness is a good thing, not a bad one. It’s alternative is complacency. The despair is proof that we are feeling beings, with a desire to see the other and to heal our world. For me, after sadness comes surrender. We are here to do this work, as hard as it may be. Although the news is full of heartbreaking stories from around the world, I feel very strongly that the most important work we all have to do is within our immediate sphere. Once we can find the personal strength of character to open our eyes to the pain around us, close by, the hardship that we ignore as we rant and rave about atrocities thousands of miles away, we are ready to be God’s hands in the world.
The Torah phrases one of its many instructions about helping others in the following way, “If there be among you a needy person, one of your brothers, within any of your gates, in thy land which the LORD your God given you, you shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand unto him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wanted.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8) In his explanation of this mitzvah, Maimonides teaches that command to give is not for sake of the one in need, but for us. It does damage to our hands to shut them in the face of the needy. This is the deep work of hesed and of tzedakah - to have the strength to see someone in need and to know that we live our purpose and heal the world by meeting their outstretched hand with our own.