Wednesday, December 28, 2005

248. As promised, an incoherent post

Here it is. Writing quickly, since I'm paying for time by the minute. Over the past two days, which have felt like a week or maybe a lifetime, I have (among many other things):
--climbed Masada
--hiked in Ein Gedi, and watched the gazelles leap just like King David said they did
--cried at Yad Vashem
--cried everywhere else
--listened to the music of a master oud player
--listened to Mizrahi Jewish women (of easten descent) talk about being an underclass in Israeli society
--ate the amazing food they sell as part of an organization to empower Mizrahi women to become entrepreneurs, despite lives often marked by poverty and violence
--dipped my hands into the Dead Sea
--counted to 40 many times (I am a bus captain or, as the tour guide keeps calling me, "bus boss")
--lit Hannukah candles with 200 people each night
--and, as my very first act in this country, after lying awake all night thanks to excitement and jet lag, chanted Torah.

Tomorrow morning we we'll have services near the Wall, at the southern part where there are excavations (and where men and women are allowed to pray together). And I'll chant Torah again, in the shadow of all history.

In the evening we head to Neve Shalom, an Arab-Israeli village where people are actually managing to live in peace. We'll be in to Tel Aviv for Shabbat.

I never understood before. I don't know how else to say it. This afternoon at Ein Gedi, watching a waterfall, the beauty of this place almost knocked the breath out of me. I feel like I've been here always.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

247. Until later

This past Shabbat morning a line of prayer caught my eye. I thought about it for a moment, and realized it said exactly what I felt about my coming trip. I had read the line many times before, but only now did it make sense in context of my life.

I got home, took out my siddur, and looked for the line... and couldn't find it, not even the part of the service where it fell. Oy, I thought, I need to get more sleep. Here I had a revelation, and now I have no idea what it was about. I did recall that it made me feel excited about the trip, and then calm. I walked out of the synagogue in peace. So I guess the line did its job; maybe I was only supposed to read it once.

I suspect I'll feel this way in Israel, too. Some of what I see and hear will set like concrete in my brain, and other things will stay as the shadow of a color or echo of a laugh, or some emotion I won't be able to name. I look forward to forgetting as much as I remember, and filling in the rest on future trips. There's an internet café in our hotel (and, I gather, on every block in Jerusalem), and I may post something here during the three seconds of free time listed on the itinerary. It might be coherent, or an unreadable stream-of-consciousness narrative that could forever embarrass me in the blogosphere. Most likely I'll be back after Jan. 4. Until then, in the words of a very funny colleague, have a Happy CE New Year! And may 2006 bring only good things for us all.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

246. Ne'ila, part 2


I didn't doubt that God was hamakom hazeh, in this very place. So many words had been whispered that day--so many secrets revealed, promises made, pleas beseeched--but I was frustrated because I knew I missed the important ones, those without sound that still needed to be said. I wanted assurance that God heard these, too.

I figured that the only thing I could do on behalf of everyone at this final hour was try and get God to pay attention. On either side of me at the bima were the rabbi, her voice strong and clear, and the Minha shaliach--the teacher, 30 years ago, of my chanting teacher--who would join in some of the prayers. He sang loud enough for anyone in Jerusalem to hear the music drifting by on a western wind. I had no choice but to wake up and pray.


More tomorrow, before I leave (although the end of Ne'ila might have to wait until I return from Israel)--I'm off, in few minutes, to a traditional Jewish Dec. 24 with latkes and Chinese food. My best wishes to everyone here, and especially those I know only as encouraging, kind and funny voices in this strange little blog world, for a Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa of light, hope and peace.

Friday, December 23, 2005

245. Ne'ila, part 1


The haftarah was very, very long, much longer than I remembered, probably because I had been too asleep in past years to notice. The teenagers struggled; the rabbi stood behind them and prompted gently. They finally sat, relieved, and she gave her d'var Torah, a strong, hopeful entreaty to learn from past voices in our community. She finished, and beckoned me back up on stage to lead Ne'ila.

For the past month I've been trying to figure out just what I felt at those moments, and I think I now have the words. I once had a client who refused to pay for my designs, blatantly ignoring our contract. We hired lawyers; we finally settled, after much unpleasantness, without his admission of guilt. I endured this annoying ordeal in a state of righteous indignation, gaining new understanding of the phrase "banging one's head against a wall." How, I wondered, could he look at me and not see me? How could he not grasp that I was right and he was completely, utterly wrong? I wanted to shout it to the trees, take an ad out in the Times, stop every single person walking down the street and shake them by the shoulders--Listen! Isn't it obvious? Tell him, now! Maybe he'll pay attention to you.

This was what I felt during Ne'ila, this very mundane comparison to the world of work, a connection I made tonight at services as the rabbi spoke about injustice and determination. Not that God, or man, has ever wronged me; quite the opposite. I know I'm one of the luckiest people on this planet. But that feeling of, you must pay attention now--I deserve it, I need it, where are you, where have you been?--filled me like a river as I began to sing the final set of prayers for the day. I think I expected to see some great light of revelation after all those hours of fasting and emotional exhaustion. But there was only a sense of being ordinary, and frustrated.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

244. Living room

(Minha, Yom Kippur 5766, continued.)

Trying not to trip over the many layers of white fabric draped around my body (skirt, blouse, parachute-sized tallit), I ran up the side steps to the low, deep stage. It felt, oddly, like a living room that just happened to have one wall missing, a thousand people in upholstered seats in its place. To the left were the musicians, instruments resting carefully at their sides as they waited for everyone to assemble at the bima. At my right, a row of folding chairs was filled with nervous, whispering teenagers getting ready to chant haftarah. The Minha shaliach, who had seen many dozen more services than them or myself, sat calmly off to the side; he would join us, once again, at the very end. A large Oriental rug covered the center of the grey stage floor, the Ark standing patiently at its farthest perimeter. I took my place at the bima, a podium with three microphones twisting out from its sides like strange metallic flowers. Even though it was odd to look down at everyone's faces (I imagined, for just a second, Evita about to address her minions) I felt not at all far from the thousand other people. We could have been a family up there on the stage, waiting with measured anticipation for the turkey or a favorite uncle to enter our home for the holidays.

The Torah reading began and ended. I have no recollection of who chanted, or how well; my eyes didn't leave the machzor for one second, because I was so exhausted that I knew I would never find my place again if they did. The teenagers began a tag-team version of the long haftarah, and I sat back down with the congregation.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

243. Minha, part 2

(Yom Kippur 5766, continued.)

We faced east to pray the Amidah. I felt angry, and was unsure why. This past year had been difficult, but extraordinarily lucky. I had life, health, and hope; really, what more is there? Maybe I was confusing anger with frustration; I was about to talk to God very loudly, in front of a thousand people, but would be so wired and tired that I'd probably sing words and not sentences, notes and not melodies. Here I was so close to the source of answers but suddenly inarticulate, the questions I had formulated all month long in a jumble. I was annoyed at God for requiring us to follow a plan this day that diminished our ability to understand and think clearly just at that instant when, parched and spent after a long struggle, we finally reached the top of the mountain.

The Torah reading was next. The rabbi looked out from the stage and beckoned me over--why? Ne'ila wasn't for another hour. Then the other shaliach tzibur sat down and I realized she needed a gabbai sheni, which I had been that very morning, and so was now a pro. Of course, I hadn't looked at this Torah portion since last Yom Kippur. I ran up front shadowed by the massive, remonstrating finger of God now hovering like a dark cloud; a gabbai is required to be familiar with the reading, and I was about to stand there under false pretenses. On the other hand, I had been busy these past few weeks with the important tasks of learning Ne'ila and investigating every cold remedy known to mankind. I decided I had practiced enough contrition for the day, and hoped God would take a raincheck. I would study the portion later. Really.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

242. Silence

Right before Shabbat began this week, I received upsetting news from a friend. Nothing life-threatening, grave or dangerous, but very, very sad. And I was powerless to do anything but listen. I sat here at the computer and contemplated the singing and dancing that would come in a few hours; it seemed inappropriate to welcome the Shabbat bride with joy and laughter at the very moment my friend would be engaged in a difficult struggle. But neither could I stay home; I needed, for my own sanity, to publicly mark the end of a long week and the beginning of a respite, however short, from my own mundane trials.

As if the calendar could see into my future, this Friday my synagogue added an additional "contemplative Kabbalat Shabbat" service of meditation and quiet chanting. Meditation used to make me very nervous. I was, although I wouldn't admit it, afraid to sit in silence with my own thoughts for any length of time. I couldn't imagine substituting the music I anticipated all week long with the mumbling I'd spent most of my life trying to escape, and meditation seemed vaguely pagan and inappropriate. (I later learned that it was a most authentic form of Jewish prayer, a passionate discipline of the ancient, mystic rabbis--a tradition which remains, in watered-down form, as we preface each service with the recitation of psalms.)

This past spring, as I faced scary (and ultimately uneventful) surgery, I decided to take a meditation class with one of the rabbis at my synagogue. All my usual methods of remaining calm had failed, and I figured this couldn't hurt.
It didn't, and was neither scary nor weird. I could pray as well in silence as with music; as Kohelet observed, there is a season for each. On Friday night, as we sat in a circle blanketed by each other's thoughts, I felt my worry lighten as each deep breath distributed it across the room until the pieces were small and weightless. If they had sound, it would be of broken crystal connecting and then drifting apart in the sunlight just like a wind chime.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

241. Mercy

Psalm 136, sung on Shabbat morning, is one of my favorite prayers. I've heard it since childhood as part of the Passover seder, set either to a dirge-like melody or the odd, singsongy one favored by my ex's family ("who slew great kings, fa la la!"). The one we do at my synagogue is simple, repetitive--and also, somehow, encouraging, comforting, and challenging. It's upbeat and in a major key, but not so cheery and square that the triumphs it lists sound like slogans. We slow down at the long line "the moon and the stars to rule by night" as if to allow an extra second to think about the complex and more problematic proof of God's love that immediately follows: "...who smote the Egyptian firstborn." I wait each week to hear the proud swagger in the cantor's voice as he recounts the slaying of the mighty Sihon and Og. (I got to sing those lines on the High Holy Days and tried, without success, to hide the fact that I was attempting to imitate every nuance of the cantor's version.)

Every once in a while the rabbis change the refrain--"Ki leolam hasdo," "His love endures forever"--to their native language, "Su merced nunca falto." Most of the congregation doesn't understand; since the unpredictable is always interesting at my synagogue, I never minded being clueless. Today they finally let us in on the secret ("it's Yiddish by way of Buenos Aires"), and one of the rabbis prefaced the lesson with a story. Years ago, along with a student group, they visited an impoverished village in El Salvador. They held a Shabbat service, the first any of the local inhabitants had seen. The rabbis sang the refrain of Psalm 136 in Spanish, and the deeply religious native community, who had never before encountered Jewish prayer, joined in with all their hearts and souls. It didn't matter that everyone was from different religious traditions; God's mercy is a universal idea. The rabbi said he thinks often of that moment in the middle of the other side of the world when praying Psalm 136. And now, each Shabbat as I hear its melody swoop up and then perch, for an instant, on a high note, as if waiting for the questions that must follow each account of victory and praise, I'll able to leave New York for a few minutes, as well.

Friday, December 16, 2005

240. Still here

Work...and more work...and getting ready for my trip...and trying to figure out how I'll live my life in the coming week if there's a transit strike, not yet a catastrophe of biblical proportions, but which could be if it lasts too long...has kept me from thinking about chanting, or much of anything else, for the past few days. I plan to come up for air very soon. Meanwhile, we had our Israel trip orientation on Wednesday night, and I'm already overwhelmed. Every minute of every hour has been planned, and we even got little cards to hang around our necks with a name tag on one side, and the customized parts of our itinerary (did I choose a concert or walking tour from 8-10 in Tel Aviv on Dec. 31?) on the other. I've never taken a vacation where I had to make so few decisions, a welcome respite from the past few weeks. Since all 180 participants will be praying, non-stop, that by next Sunday all transportation issues in New York will have been resolved and we won't have problems getting to the airport, I'm confident that Someone will listen. (Even if it's just the president of the MTA, hearing encouraging voices in his dreams.)

At the orientation we studied Tefilat Haderekh, the prayer for travelers, traditional to say before beginning any kind of journey:

May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to guide us in peace, to sustain us in peace, to lead us to our desired destination in health and joy and peace, and to bring us home in peace. Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten the world. Bless the work of our hands. May we find grace, love and compassion in Your sight and in the sight of all who see us. Hear our supplication, for You listen to prayer and supplication. Praised are You, Lord who hears prayer.

Why, we wondered, does it begin "May it be Your will...God of our ancestors," rather than appealing to the usual "Sovereign of the universe"? We are where we are because of someone who traveled before us; had God not looked with approval upon the journeys of our parents or great-great-grandparents, we could not ask for this favor, or any other. To forget those people would render our own requests hollow and selfish. I hope, when I set foot in Israel, that I can feel a connection with those ancestors, and thank them for making the journey so long ago.

Monday, December 12, 2005

239. Covenant

In my Me'ah class tonight, we met with one of the rabbis instead of our usual teacher in order to put weeks of academic learning (i.e., scholars believe the Bible was written and redacted by many people over time; archaeologists have proven that history didn't happen like the stories say, etc.) into a religious perspective.

It was very interesting. Although my synagogue has members spanning a large variety of beliefs and practices, most fall on the liberal end of the scale. This generally means that we don't take the words of the Bible literally. So I was surprised to hear that many people in the class were troubled by what we studied. How, someone asked, can I reconcile all this information with the Torah as "mi Sinai" (given at Sinai)? How can I continue to believe it's a sacred text? Why observe mitzvot if they were made up by people, not heaven?

I'm sure these were not new questions for anyone, but were brought to the fore by many weeks of reading a sacred text as history, literature, and archaeological record. I was also a little surprised to acknowledge, with complete confidence, that I'm not bothered by any of what we've studied. With each theory I read, each literary connection between authors "J" and "E" or bit of proof that a battle did not take place as written but was fabricated in a creative way by someone else, decades later, I thought--how great that God gave us the ability to spin meaningful tales out of myths that have lost their relevance, or history otherwise doomed to be forgotten. If we're really made in God's image, He must be pretty cool. The rabbi talked about an "internal sense of commandedness" borne as much from the covenant with ourselves as the one with God, of which we must be aware even when we don't subscribe to the traditional reasons for following those rules. I understood; this, I think, is why I feel both compelled, and unworthy, to chant Torah and lead services. Maybe it's my duty to both God and people--the two categories blurring, overlapping, and sharing meaning--to do these things.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

238. Countdown

Recent blogsurfing has led me to some interesting posts about the season of Advent, observance of which I was never really aware, except for noticing some really creative calendars. Counting down the days in anticipation of a spiritually significant event seems to be a shared concept for many different religions. I found mention online of parallels between the marking of daily fasts during the month of Ramadan and the Sefirat haOmer, the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot. And there seems to be more than a slight relationship (to me, at least; I've not yet discovered websites to corroborate this) between Advent and Elul, the month preceding the High Holy Days. This from the very first hit in my Google search:

"Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing... Advent’s prayers are prayers of humble devotion and commitment, prayers of submission, prayers for deliverance, prayers from those walking in darkness who are awaiting and anticipating a great light (Isa 9)!"

The specific subjects of Advent and Elul are certainly different for Christians and Jews. And I understand that Advent is a joyous time, unlike the somber weeks of preparation for Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. But every day in Elul we read selichot, special prayers for deliverance and mercy. And at the end of that month, Jews encounter their own "great light"--within ourselves, in the form of the hope and joy that a clean slate, and the year's new Torah, will bring.

This connection has been on my mind because I've started practicing my Torah portion for the week of Hanukkah. When I learned it last year, I immediately dubbed it (with apologies offered in advance to any and all for my irreverence) "The Twelve Day of Christmas, Jewish Version":

The one to bring his offering on the first day was Nachshon son of Aminadav of the tribe of Judah.
His offering was as follows:
One silver bowl weighing 130 shekels, and one silver sacrificial basin weighing 70 shekels by the sanctuary standard, both filled with the best grade wheat meal kneaded with olive oil for a meal offering.
One gold incense bowl weighing 10 [shekels] filled with incense.
One young bull, one ram and one yearling sheep for a burnt offering;
one goat for a sin offering;
and for the peace sacrifice, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five yearling sheep.
This was the offering of Nachshon son of Aminadav.

And so forth. There are twelve days of these bulls of pleasant odor, etc. (Only eight days to Hanukkah, so we don't read them all. I don't mind.) Like the Christmas song, it has lots of words, although they're decidedly less upbeat. And there the similarity ends.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

237. Imagine

(Interrupting Yom Kippur, once again.)

This morning at services a remarkable boy and his amazing family celebrated his Bar Mitzvah with a new tradition: dramatized commentary on the Torah portion coached by the folks at Storahtelling, who have re-invented the art of traditional ritual theater and of whom I'm a big fan. Today was Vayetze, the story of Jacob, his father-in-law, angels and ladders, and lots of weird goats. In between each of the seven aliyot, the Bar Mitzvah boy and and his cousins and grandmother spoke in the voices of Jacob, Reuben, and Dinah (all written by the boy himself) to offer their own perspectives on what was going on with this complex, troubled, and very real family.

It was mesmerizing to witness words of Torah come to life through the eyes of an extraordinarily perceptive 13-year-old. Then the Torah service ended and we started to pray the Musaf Amidah, which begins communally and concludes with many minutes of silent prayer. The tradition at my synagogue is to finish that second section with a gentle melody to bring us out of ourselves and back to the group; the cantor, as usual, played his keyboard softly, a tune that sounded familiar. I hummed along, but couldn't place it. He beckoned the Bar Mitzvah to the microphone, who began in a sweet, soulful voice:

"Imagine all the people, living life in peace..."

We all smiled and started to sing along. The words and simple, beautiful melody did not seem at all incongruous in the middle of a religious service. When we got to "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one," I thought about how well John Lennon, a direct descendant of Jacob if ever there was one, would have fit in at my synagogue.

Friday, December 09, 2005

236. Minha, part 1


The theater was large, but felt oddly intimate--maybe it was the long, low ceiling, the upholstery-muted hum of anticipatory conversation, the weariness that made us want to seek out one another for strength. Most of the seats were empty, as is usual at the start of Minha; no one wants to rush back after a full day of atonement. The rabbi with whom I led in the morning was here now, as well, praying alongside the day school principal, who had a big, sonorous voice that shook us all awake.

At first I found it difficult to concentrate in this unfamiliar space. I didn't know where to look, and felt like I was floating in a sea of disembodied voices. I tried closing my eyes, but was used to the intimate sense of presence that a crowded room will create; the distance between myself and the next person seemed even wider when I couldn't see. Then I looked around and observed that everyone else was also struggling to focus on the bima, expressions on their faces rapt and complicated with the emotion of the past year's joys and failures. We were all trying to fight our exhaustion and, in these last allotted moments of change, step over into the next place in our lives. The strange, half-empty theater suddenly felt like home, once I understood that we were all standing in exactly the same spot.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

235. Psalm

In lieu of talking about myself today, here's a beautiful poem by Avraham Ben Yitzchak, first published in 1910 in the Warsaw literary journal “Ha’Ivri Hehadash” (“The New Hebrew”). (Translation by Peter Cole.) According to the coordinator of my Israel trip, this was one of many literary works, written in Europe in a strange, dead language, that contributed directly to the blossoming of Hebrew culture that led to the creation of Israel. We'll be reading a different poem on the theme of light each evening in Jerusalem as we light Hanukah candles.


For a very few moments it happens you lift
your soul inside you like a crystal bead:
a world of sunlight and broken hues,
a colloquy of things seen and trembling;
and your eyes turn to your world
as to that bead of crystal—
though your world shudders, almost spills,
and in its fullness will not hold,
trembling into its limits…
And you’re given, it seems, to all worlds—
The edges of airy distance stream from your eyes
and the terrors of darkness deepen within them—
as things both distant and near find you,
and call for your soul.
in the stillness of nights,
At the mountains’ summit you stand
surrounded by cold and giant stars,
while the living below you sink to earth
and blackened oblivion falls
over the last flame of their grief—
and you’re awakened to terror
above the darkness.
And if a star should fall,
at the trembling flame a roar will ascend
from the straits of loss to heaven—
and the star will fall toward your soul
and die out in its abyss…
When morning comes
you’ll be hovering over the face of the void,
stretching your deepest blue across it,
the great sun in your hands—
until evening.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

234. Pouring forth

(Another time-challenged week, as all my clients attempt to get their projects done before the end of the year in order to prevent the certain fall of civilization, or something equally dire and improbable.)

A friend and reader of this blog sent me a beautiful quote today. It's from "The Soul of the Story, " by Rabbi David Zeller:

"Although you can just read the Torah on Shabbat, it is meant to be sung to a special melody. According to kabbalistic teachings from the 'Four Worlds,' melody pours forth from the highest of levels. The first level is the 'Letter,' which is like our body; second, the 'Crown' embellishing the letter corresponds to our emotions. Third, the 'Vowels' under the letter parallel our breath of life. Finally, the 'Melody' of the letter or word represents our soul. "

What a beautiful idea--chanting as music that was born with us and has always been within us, waiting for us to start singing it. Or, the sounds of chanting as another network running though our bodies, parallel to our veins and commingling with our blood, and equally as vital to our lives. Or--and as a designer and typography fanatic, I love this image--music which exists only when described by letters in the Torah and, when arranged in a specific order, conjures the soul and breath of the sounds just as an incantation might create a golem.

Monday, December 05, 2005

233. Tenth time

Should there be a heaven, and should I get to go there one day in the very, very distant future, there's no way I'll be impressed by any sounds the angels and their harps might happen to make. I've listened to, and sung with, the cantor at my synagogue. It doesn't get much better than that.

I had so much fun leading services on Friday that it felt like breaking a law. We--the rabbinic fellow, a woman with a good ear and sweet, generous voice; the cantor at his keyboard; a cellist, flutist, and singing percussionist; and myself--prayed in a way that felt like jazz improvisation, which I've never done, but imagine must generate the same kind of loving, skydiving, creative exhilaration. I hadn't led with the cantor since last year; I noticed, for the first time, how the musicians relax when he's in charge. Like a master pilot, there's no doubt that he'll steer perfectly, with a few interesting diversions along the way to make sure the trip doesn't get boring.

We were at the church, a big place where it's always harder than at the synagogue to feel the energy of the congregation. (In fact, starting in January we're going to have two successive Friday night services at the synagogue, rather than a simultaneous one at the church, to try and solve this problem.) Standing just a few feet away from the cantor, I was almost blindsided by waves of his intensity. Maybe because I was exhausted, maybe because the sound system had been changed and I could hear myself for the first time ever (who, I wondered when I first sang into the mic, is that voice right behind me? oh, it's me!), maybe because I was just having too much fun, I pretty much forgot that anyone was listening. It took a lot of concentration: do I sing harmony here, or is he trying for the greater energy of unison? What pattern of alternating voices is this (we created a few on the fly so complex that I probably couldn't follow them if they had been written down)? And, oh my goodness, is he really singing harmony under my melody? And a million other decisions I can't even articulate. It felt like we were weaving together a big, joyous fabric of praise that would have been incomplete if any one of our individual sounds had been missing.

I think the cantor was having fun, too. He started one prayer, which has alternate melodies, so slowly and quietly that even the musicians couldn't tell which version he chose. I couldn't see him from where I was standing, so this is just a guess--but I imagined him smiling, enjoying the game, waiting to see how many notes would go by before we caught on.

Wonderful experiences usually pass in the blink of an eye, but this one seemed to last forever, like I was luxuriating in a long, hot bath. I felt guilty; do I really deserve to be part of this shining thing, when everyone else has to sit way out there? Am I communicating with the congregation, or do I appear as self-centered as I feel right now? I did not (for the first time in quite a while) dwell on my doubts. I just kept listening, and singing.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

232. Three weeks

Having recovered from my drastic sleep deficit of last week, as well as the intoxicating time I had leading services on Friday (more on that later), I decided to accept the invitation of the coordinator of my Israel trip and offer some thoughts for the group's weekly countdown email newsletter (only three weeks to go). People have been writing about their connections to the land, how much they've loved their many trips, etc. With some trepidation I decided to voice my ongoing confusion. It felt really good to put these words together. Here it is (edited a bit for anonymity):


Since our 20th reunion a few years ago, members of my high school graduating class have been getting together at a restaurant every year during the last week of December. This year, of course, I'll be on the Israel trip and so will be unable to attend. I RSVP'd with my regrets and soon received, to my surprise, email replies from a bunch of people with whom I had long ago dropped out of touch:

"Remember me? I'm so thrilled for you. I'll be going to my homeland (Armenia) next year for the first time and know how you must feel."
"Hey [aa.], many blessings! Please say a prayer for us at the Wall on Kwanzaa!"

These good wishes have moved me a great deal but also, to be honest, have left me feeling unworthy of the vicarious excitement. For most of my life I did not want to go to Israel. I was either wary, disinterested, angry about the political situation, or certain that as an uninvolved Jew I had no right to be there. Both sides of my family lived the American dream, arriving in New York from Eastern Europe and building new lives from scratch. The Old World--and this seemed to include Israel, where we had no relatives--was a place of pain and struggle from which we had moved on. Israel was rarely discussed at my Orthodox Hebrew school, and I grew up with little sense of her importance except as a place filled with slightly crazy idealists still fighting against evil forces not unlike those which drove my father out of Russia. Yes, we helped Israel--we dutifully sponsored trees and purchased bonds--but we had to help ourselves first. As I got older, learned the whole story, and saw other parts of the world, I understood more about the biases I had been taught. But I was not able to fully transcend them. Nor did I truly believe that Israel wanted or needed me, who had forgotten her for so long.

Since I joined [...] in 1999 and became re-involved with Jewish life, I've found a place in my heart for new and wonderful kinds of observance and expression. But I am not yet comfortable with the Israel part. When I pray in the Amidah for God's glory to be apparent in Jerusalem, I wonder why I'm supposed to yearn for this place over all others. Israel feels less like a homeland, as my Armenian friend suggested, than a distant relative who's been knocking at the door for quite some time and whom I've been unwilling to let in. I decided to go on this trip because I sensed, acutely, the hole in myself where this connection should be. I knew that in the company of friends and community I would be able to see Israel from the kind of perspective that informs everything at [...]--passionate, inclusive, fair, and grounded in love. I have no idea what I will feel when I get off that plane, but look forward to how it will change me--because I know it will, for the better.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

231. Not bad at all

I am not meting out this story one paragraph at a time for dramatic effect (well, not entirely), but because this has been a week of 15-hour work days. Once I'm awake enough to find the exact words to describe the conclusion of my spiritual Olympics, I will do so. Meanwhile, I got another one of those "By the way..." phone calls this afternoon, and so will be leading services on Friday. This evening I also confirmed that I'll be chanting Torah at three services in Israel with the other members of my trip. Just the phrase "I'll be chanting Torah in Israel" makes my hair stand on end. I cannot conceive of how that might feel. I hope I don't faint. We'll read each morning that week because of Hanukkah, and I already know most of it from last year (from Numbers, lots and lots of offerings, bulls, lambs, she-goats, you name it.)

My insane week no longer seems half bad at all.

Monday, November 28, 2005

230. Stage

This theater was very, very different than the church or synagogue: upholstered seats, smoky lighting, and since we were partially below ground level, no windows. A small Ark stood in the center of the stage, surrounded by Oriental rugs that covered a wooden floor painted glossy grey. I left my jacket in a backstage Green Room about five times larger than my apartment, and found a seat in the audience; Ne'ila wouldn't begin until 6, after the Minha service and teaching. The instrumentalists began to gather over to the right by a grand piano, and I could see a sound engineer stage left at what looked like the dashboard of a space station. I was impressed, although it seemed like we were all waiting for the curtain to rise on a musical rather than a very serious religious service.

Although I'd been fasting for the past 23 hours, I wasn't the least bit uncomfortable. Adrenaline is much more effective than food or water. I felt guilty for being excited; these were the gravest hours of the year. But, just like the rehearsals that made me feel like a rock star, this was certainly the closest I'd ever get to singing solo on a Broadway stage. I still had until sunset to ask forgiveness for my delusions of grandeur.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

229. Zipper

At the very old but newly renovated theater where I was to lead Ne'ila, you might hear a James Joyce marathon reading or concert of avant garde polka music from Sweden. A hip and countercultural sort of place, it was a fitting venue for my synagogue. But in a concession to the very commercial need for an audience, they installed a "zipper" above the front marquee, a rotating string of words in lights like at Times Square, to announce current shows ("GEMS OF ICELANDIC CINEMA...TUES 3PM...$15...GEMS OF ICELANDIC CINEMA...TUES 3PM..."). As I approached the theater, I suddenly wondered what they were going to do about that zipper. The place would appear to be closed if they turned it off, and people might get confused. "HAPPY YOM KIPPUR TO OUR JEWISH FRIENDS..."? Maybe some tasteful Biblical quote: "MARK, THE TENTH DAY OF THIS SEVENTH MONTH IS THE DAY OF ATONEMENT...SOLD OUT..." Or, "YOU SHALL PRACTICE SELF-DENIAL...TICKET HOLDERS ONLY..."

The zipper was still on. But all it said was the neighborly and innocuous (and incorrect, by 15 minutes) "WELCOME...SERVICES 4:15...WELCOME...SERVICES 4:15..." And they were not, thank goodness, selling popcorn in the lobby.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

228. ...was the tenth day.

(Continued, from this and this).

I sat with my friends for Musaf. Swathed in many different kinds of white fabric, I felt safe, secure, and compelled to purify my soul in order to match the example set by my garments. I drew my tallit over my head during the Amidah and under its shelter, hidden from people, I cried and prayed that I might be more visible than ever to God. At the Aleinu Malhuyot the rabbi invited us to follow the custom of our grandparents and observe the true intent of the line "while we kneel, bow, and give thanks." I had always been too self-conscious, and a little afraid, to lie down, to prostrate myself; the gesture seemed like overacting when performed by non-rabbis, and also too powerful to bear. But this time I did it, along with a dozen others at the front of the sanctuary. When it came time to stand, there seemed to be a weight on my back forcing my forehead to the floor. I needed more than a moment of humility. But the service continued and so, shaking, I got up.

I walked home in the rain, and sat on the sofa and stared into space for an hour. I practiced the Havdalah service one more time; I was afraid I'd forget the words to "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem that I should have known by heart but didn't, and which closes the whole proceedings after the lights come back on. Then, tired, hungry, sated, alone, together, spent, filled, confused, and completely clear about what I still needed to do, I walked the few blocks to the theater to help lead Ne'ila, the closing service of Yom Kippur.

Friday, November 25, 2005

227. One song left, part 2


Afterwards, I thought about my "one song" and knew immediately that it would be from the High Holy Day or Shabbat liturgy, one of the melodies already etched into my brain and bones. I wouldn't understand the meaning of every word in my song, as is the case with most of the prayers I've led, but I think the audience would still trust in my attempt at honesty. The sounds themselves would fill in the gaps.

And that, perhaps, is also why I sometimes feel like an imposter in front of my congregation. I am singing on their behalf, but also for my own life. When I can't grasp the full intent of these prayers, I replace the blank lines with myself. Is it sufficient to speak in my own private language and be glad that other people, somehow, understand? The rabbis trust me to get it right, but I could miss the point entirely and not know it. It feels very self-indulgent. And I can never learn enough of what I'm supposed to know, no matter how much I try--this is, after all, just one small part of my story, a gift given to me by the rabbis and congregation of an hour or two every month or so in between the rest of my life. Sometimes those few moments are like fuel for all the hours that remain. Will I ever be able to repay the favor to those who listen, without whose support and voices I could not sing at all?

I remind myself that the rabbis also struggle, in ways I can't know. One of them calls prayer "holy chutzpah"--how dare we address God at all! But we persist because prayer, as Heschel wrote, is our only possible response to the amazement of living. I don't understand why it gives me strength; I'm afraid that one day it will stop, as suddenly as it began. The world will seem hollow, and I'll no longer be able to stand in front of everyone and wait for their energy and joy to become my own.

I worry too much. Tonight the rabbi spoke about this week's parasha, Chayyei Sarah, in which Jacob and Ishmael come together to bury their father Isaac. They are not the best of friends, but the Torah speaks of no strife or debate; they simply, with grace and compassion, do what's needed. Sometimes, the rabbi observed, we just have to say baruch HaShem, thank God for what we have and where we are, and live. There's a time for high drama, and a time to get on with it.

Maybe there isn't "one song" for any of us, just as there isn't one Torah--it changes as we do, and we need to accept each new melody and just get on with it. My life and language are fluid; whatever sound comes out, good or bad, stumbling or confident, will be valid. The people who listen to me already know this. I need to trust and believe them.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

226. One song left, part 1

My niece and I have a tradition of spending Thanksgiving afternoon at the movies, and today we saw "Walk The Line," about the relationship between Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. I'm not a fan of country music--I've tried, I really have--but loved this film. Although I never knew what a sad, complex, and ultimately satisfying life and career he had, or what a strong woman she was (or how appealing Joaquin Phoenix is), I was most moved by the brief insights into how Cash came to write songs that spoke so eloquently from his soul. "Walk The Line," as critics have pointed out, is not really about his music. But enough of that other story survived the cutting room floor for me to do what the best of movies, and literature, encourage--project myself onto the characters, and imagine how their struggles might reflect my own.

I have very, very little in common with Johnny Cash. There was a scene, however, when his band is auditioning for Sam Phillips, the Sun Records owner who gave him his big break. They sing a popular Gospel tune. Phillips stops them in the middle--sorry, I can't make money from this. I'm not convinced you mean it. Cash gets angry; are you telling me I don't believe in God?

Pretend you have only one song left to sing in your life, says Phillips. Would it be this one? Come back when you have that song for me. (According to the review cited above, the more popular version of the quote is "Go home and sin, and then come back with a song I can sell.") So, in true Hollywood fashion, Cash begins to growl out "Folsom Prison Blues" ("I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die"), showing us that he's capable of raw, honest emotion and Oscar-caliber acting. Phillips loves it; a star is born.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

225. Gratefulness

"To pray is to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. Who is worthy to be present at the constant unfolding of time? Amidst the meditation of mountains, the humility of flowers--wiser than all alphabets--clouds that die constantly for the sake of God's glory, we are hating, hunting, hurting. Suddenly we feel ashamed of our clashes and complaints in the face of the tacit glory in nature. It is so embarrassing to live! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great."
--Abraham Joshua Heschel

This evening I attended an interfaith Thanksgiving service which was remarkable because it wasn't remarkable. For the past ten years it's rotated among houses of worship, sponsored by an organization of West Side clergy; my synagogue hosted tonight for the first time ever. About 200 people showed up, with prayers and songs co-led by an imam, a Buddhist priest, a bunch of rabbis and ministers, and a fabulous, multi-ethnic Gospel choir from the church down the block. We read the Heschel quote above, which kind of summarizes in one amazing paragraph everything I've been trying to express during the past year, and we collected money for the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.

My wish for this Thanksgiving is to live in a world just like tonight's service where all people, without fanfare, will choose to give thanks, and give of themselves, in partnership with those who believe as they do as well as those who do not. Hoping everyone reading this has a day filled with peace, abundance, and gratitude.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

224. Of prayer and a farm animal


I was caught up in spiritual fervor, and feeling confident and pretty satisfied with myself. We finished the silent Amidah.

"Please turn to p. 441 for the chazara," said the rabbi.

"Chazara." This was the second time in my life I had heard the word. I had no idea what it meant, but was apparently about to do it. On Rosh Hashonah, during a moment of distraction from my vocal struggles, I first heard the rabbi invite us to this thing; I never got around to checking a dictionary, but guessed it had to do with "chazzan," cantor, me, since we were about to begin the reader's repetition of the Amidah. (The Amidah is traditionally read twice, the first time silently and then again sung by the cantor. We repeat it at my synagogue only on the High Holy Days.) That Yom Kippur morning I pondered the word for a few seconds with a clearer head, and noted with some alarm that it sounded suspiciously like another, more familiar one: "chazzerai," the not very complimentary Yiddish term meaning pig stuff, treyf, that which is non-kosher. Or, more generally, garbage food. Echoes of my mother yelling, as I emerged from a candy store, "Don't eat that chazzerai! You'll spoil dinner!"

The rabbi would not be calling me a pig, and I was certain that "chazara" and "chazzerai" could not in any way, shape or form mean the same thing. Never. Well, almost certain. The following day I Googled the word, and discovered I wasn't the only person confused by the similarity in sound. Here was the answer, in very proper academic terms, from a Yiddish language discussion list:

Q: Can anyone suggest why the Yiddish word iberkhazern, which means "to review, to repeat, to go over," is derived from the Hebrew word "khazer," meaning "pig." What is the connection?

A: The word iberkhazern is a combination of the Yiddish "iber" [above, beyond] and the Hebrew "la-chzor" or "chazara" [to repeat, repetition]. It has nothing to do with chazir (i.e., pig).

As usual, the rabbis at my synagogue were trying to expand our knowledge by using a traditional Hebrew term instead of the English, so "chazara" (which has no connection to the word "chazzan") rather than "repetition of the Amidah." I imagined the writer of the discussion list query sitting down at the keyboard after Shabbat: "Of course they wouldn't be talking about pork during services. But it sure sounded like they were. Nah, no way. Oy. How can I ask this question without sounding stupid?" I am grateful to Google for saving me from similar embarrassment.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

223. ...and the morning [part 3]...


We walked out to the bima and began the service. Between my lingering cold and lack of sleep the night before, thanks to the traditional Muslim fig cake I stayed awake to bake for an interfaith break-fast*, I was exhausted. But I could sing, more or less, and the emotion of the day was much better than water for my parched throat. As the morning continued and I grew tired and hungry, the distance from me to God seemed to diminish. Our conversation began to get personal, even in front of a thousand people. At the U'vechen, the rabbi and I--although we had planned to alternate verses--sang in unison, just like the two male rabbis and cantor a few years earlier. I was able to match her note for note; we sounded like one person, and I could feel the power of many more going through my bones.

A few years ago at a singing workshop, a vocal coach addressed me during a master class. You sound really nice, she said, but something is missing and I don't know how to help you find it. She pointed to her heart. I was upset and confused by her criticism; how was I supposed to become a better singer if she couldn't tell me what was wrong? The whole process seemed a little less fun after that. Questions about the lost, unknown thing were always in the back of my mind.

I thought of the teacher's comment when I went back to sit with the congregation after Shaharit ended. I realized that I had found it, the elusive heart of my voice, the very first time I chanted Torah. It was still fun to sing the music I always loved, the Renaissance motets and weird avant garde French choral pieces, but they now seemed without texture, two-dimensional, a copy of the real thing. This morning that extra force was so strong it seemed to leap out of my chest and alight behind the bima just like another person.

*My first attempt to bake since the age of 12. It went fine, but the cake was misplaced at the event and is currently in a friend's freezer. So I escaped the risk of my poor domestic skills posing a threat to local interfaith relations.

Friday, November 18, 2005

222. Words

Just as I was pondering the handicap of memory in my last post, I read the following in Sinai and Zion, a book for my Me'ah course:

"It is significant for our understanding of the nature of the religion of Israel among the religions of the world that meaning for her is derived not from introspection, but from a consideration of the public testimony to God. The present generation... do[es] not determine who they are by looking within, by plumbing the depths of the individual soul, by seeking a mystical light in the innermost reaches of the self. Rather, the direction is the opposite... One looks out from the self to find out who one is meant to be... Israel began to infer and to affirm her identity by telling a story." [pp. 38-39]

This struck me as a good capsule analysis of the enduring link in Judaism between text and spirit. Sometimes it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Maybe that's why I'm so afraid to make a mistake when chanting Torah; the words do not simply represent the story, but are the story, of which I become a part when I read. The responsibility is enormous. I think we circumvent the risk of becoming like the generations before Abraham, of worshipping words as if they were idols, by never agreeing on their interpretation (see, for example, the entire Talmud). To insist there's no room for change in Judaism, to observe inflexibly, seems almost sacrilegious.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

221. Tinfoil hat

In homage to a wonderful fellow blogger, I almost called this post "On appearing to be crazy." It's now socially acceptable in New York to talk to yourself while walking down the street. In fact, you're actually speaking into a cell phone to one of your multitudes of friends via ear buds and a lapel mic or, better yet, a hidden Bluetooth receiver. But you still look like you're communicating with aliens, even though you've left the tinfoil hat back home.

This strange trend gave me the idea of downloading a Hebrew conversation audiobook, which should help me achieve kindergarten-level prowess in only four hours of boring repetition. (I can understand phrases like "bull of pleasant odor," but don't know how to ask what time it is, or anything else even vaguely practical.) Since my only free time is when I'm getting from place to place, I figure no one on the street or subway will care if I'm mumbling "Ani mevina Ivrit" ["I understand Hebrew"] over and over again into my iPod.

In truth, I can go to Israel for a week and never need a word of Hebrew, since I'll be with a big group of Americans. But this seems rude, like a dinner guest who shows up empty-handed. Israel will always welcome me unconditionally; the least I can do is try to speak her language. Beyond that, I have no expectations about my trip. Will I feel awed and overwhelmed when I get off the plane? Or will I feel little beyond the usual excitement of a tourist, but pretend to be overwhelmed for the sake of appearances? Is my heart bound to this land or is it, thanks to years of disinterest, denial, and ambivalence, inaccessible?

I'm not sure. We discussed our emotional biases about Israel at a class last night. Most American Jews think of Israel as a place of refuge--but this also implies that our image of home is linked to memories of fear. So we're wary, like an abused child, of offering criticism even when the situation warrants it, because criticism might disturb the status quo and so diminish our already tentative sense of security.

We spent thousands of years yearning for a land where the goodness of the Bible could be lived. Now that it exists, we still need to figure out how reach past our scars and to our dreams. As the rabbi put it, it was easier to be the conscience of humanity when we were powerless.

Maybe I will "mevina" once I get off that plane. Maybe not.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

220. Privilege

I danced with the Torah for a few minutes--or maybe less, since time had stopped. I felt like Maria in "West Side Story," that instant when she sees Tony from across the room and everything turns to slow motion. I noticed the yearning in the faces of others who moved around me, and felt guilty for holding on to my gift for so long. So, just like the woman who gave me the scroll, I made eye contact with someone else in the circle. She smiled and held out her ams; I handed over the Torah, and draped my tallit around her shoulders. I ran back out into the ring of dancers and knew, immediately, what had changed--now, when I clasped my hands to theirs, the gesture was of partnership rather than a need to be led. It seems silly to me that I felt so separate from all those words until I was able to physically touch the parchment upon which they were written, but I did. We grow closer each time I chant from the scroll, but I'm still in awe, still a little afraid.

A few weeks ago, I was saddened by many posts in different blogs from women who felt disenfranchised on Simchat Torah because they were unable to dance with the Torot--and, in some cases, weren't allowed, or were discouraged by minhag (custom), to dance at all. I know that the separation of the sexes in Orthodox practice can be a joyful experience, and also bestows a wonderful, privileged status upon women that never quite happens in egalitarian circles. (At a class tonight, the rabbi spoke of a female scholar who visited a traditional yeshiva in Jerusalem. She blew everyone away with her brilliance. This, said the teacher, is why we don't let them study with us.) But I know, as well, that many women crave the experience I had. And practice hasn't caught up with custom even at a very large number of progressive Conservative congregations, where women are viewed as interlopers when they actually do the things they have the right to do.

Gender parity is so entrenched at my synagogue that's it's almost a non-issue. I was surprised, a few years back, when a traditional women's Rosh Hodesh group was formed... why do we need such a thing, I wondered? But the group exists on its own merits, neither to prove a point nor fill a vacuum, and so provides an even more powerful experience that it might otherwise. I envy the children growing up at my synagogue who won't even remember a time when any of this was an issue.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

219. Twirling

Getting back to that Simchat Torah of a few years ago...

The Torah scroll was much lighter than I thought it would be. At first I held it like a child, gently and tightly, afraid it might fall. But everyone around me was moving in a frenzy, and I couldn't stand still--I had to take the chance and jump, sway, fly with the scroll clasped in my arms. Like a scene from a movie, the perimeters of the sanctuary began to recede and blur, and the loud music fall away, until the scroll and I twirled alone in the center of an oasis of dancers.

Monday, November 14, 2005

218. Sefer Torah, part 2

A man with a grey beard walks over to the platform. He talks about Amalek, the biblical enemy of the Israelites who preyed upon their weak and elderly. The Torah commands us to "blot out the name of Amalek" and sofrim do so, literally, before writing holy words. Amalek may be long gone, he explains, but his curse remains--we all have places of negativity within our hearts. Now, in these next moments, we can expunge them. We watch on the large screen as he dips a quill into a bottle of ink and then, slowly, stroke by measured stroke, writes letters... aleph, mem, lamed... I'm fascinated by the graceful rhythm with which he creates each mark, as if playing a tune with the quill. He finishes the word and, almost before we can read it, obscures it with a large "x". A few thousand years of Jewish history have been compressed into less than a minute. I realize that I'm shaking, and feel tears running down my face.

He dips the quill again, surrounded by people and Torot, and we stand on our toes and move closer to the platform. He says a few words of prayer, leans over the parchment, and begins to fill in the curves and bars, the twists and angles, of "Bereshit." We watch in silence as the word becomes solid and alive. He puts down the quill and faces the crowd; I feel like he's looking directly into my eyes. "Mazel tov!" he exclaims. We applaud and embrace, and link arms to sing the Sheheheyanu blessing: "Blessed are You, our God, Creator of time and space, who has supported us, protected us, and brought us to this moment." Then we dance, for a very long time, around the table upon which rests a single piece of parchment inscribed with one word, the beginnings our new Torah, which in about a year will return to this spot filled with all the words that tell our story.

I want to dance, but keep leaving the circle to look at the word. It appears strong but lonely. It will, over decades, witness tears, joy, grief, laughter, and the lives of people not yet born. In the empty spaces surrounding the word I see the freedom of a blank page, the infinite unknowns and possibilities still to come in my life. I wonder what person I will be once the Torah has been written and rests in its home in our Ark.


Note: This happened yesterday, and is the first time in our very long institutional memory that my synagogue has commissioned the writing of a Torah. It's an amazing thing.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

217. Sefer Torah, part 1

It's not a holiday, but the sanctuary is filled with hundreds of people: adults sitting in chairs along the back perimeter, children and parents on the floor, and a steady of hum of conversation that's focused on a raised platform right in the middle. The rabbis come up front, and the cantor begins to sing: "Odekha ki anitani..." "I will give you thanks, for You have answered me... " We rise and face the Ark as, one by one, a procession of men and women remove each of twelve Torot and begin to walk around the sanctuary and among the sitting, standing, anticipating crowd. Some of the scrolls are undressed, unrolled, and held open. Others--those worn and passul, not suitable for reading--observe without comment, embraced tightly in their holders' arms like elderly, honored members of the family.

A girl standing at the first open scroll begins to read the beginning of the first book: "Bereshit barah Elohim..." The rabbi says a few words of welcome, and we sing the exclamation of Jacob in Genesis 28:17: "How awesome is this place!" The rabbi walks over to the second open scroll, and a teenage boy reads the last verse in the book. Then he hands me the yad, and I chant the first line of the next one: "V'eleh, shemot b'nai Yisrael...", "These are the names of the children of Israel..." "Ozi vezimrat Yah," we sing, from Exodus 15:2, "God is my strength and song." The rabbi speaks once again, and we move on to the third scroll and the last verse of Exodus. And so on around the room, until we've read and sung words from all five books. "Hazak, hazak!" we proclaim, after the final syllable of the very last line.

Our attention shifts to a large screen at the right of the Ark. A man with a video camera hovers above the platform, his camera trained on long sheet of parchment. We watch the screen as he tries to focus, and suddenly the outline of a word appears through the blur: Bereshit. "In the beginning." I gasp--we all gasp. Creation is being enacted right before our eyes. The very first letters of the Torah, written on a scroll that will rest in our Ark, on parchment to be underlined, one day, by a yad I might hold, waits for a sofer, a ritual scribe, to pour the flesh and breath of life into its letters.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

216. Burrowing

As I listened to the Torah reading this morning and tried to imagine Abraham's life as he journeyed to an unknown place, I envisioned a vast, arid desert landscape interrupted by the quick trail of a little animal burrowing beneath the dunes. Sometimes it comes up for air, tiny dark eyes blinking in the unfamiliar light as it tries to comprehend life above millions of grains of sand. Mostly it concentrates on advancing from one place of safety to the next, a small, moving bump of earth the only marker of its existence.

We are that animal, I think, although I don't mean to suggest that survival is a constant struggle. Those few moments in the sun are more than just occasions to emerge and breathe--they herald the light and understanding that mark the best parts of our story. At other times, though, we stay buried in the sand, the lesser bits of life threatening to drown us if we don't have energy to push them away. At services today my mind wandered to the d'var Torah I'm writing for Parashat Tetzaveh, the week before Purim. (Members of the congregation are invited to write a one-page "word of Torah," thoughts based on the weekly portion, for distribution to the entire community. I've never done one of these before.) I chose this parasha because it's right before my mother's yahrzeit; had I given it more thought, I might have picked a section further from the eye-glazing sacrifice/genealogy/skin disease category. OK, no skin diseases in Tetzaveh. But the copious details about priestly vestments and dimensions of the altar might as well be grains of sand, obscuring the story line and blinding me to the meaning hidden behind all those words.

I've started to read discussions of this portion, most of which focus on the high priest's breastplate, the ner tamid (the "eternal light" above the Ark), or the symbolism of incense. But I think I'll write about how we're so often unable to see the bigger picture, the truth of a situation, because of the all the little distracting details that intrude and send us burrowing down false paths. I fall into this trap quite often. Sometimes I hate that I'm most comfortable with the smaller parts of a thing, the punctuation and individual notes (which is why I'm a graphic designer and, yes, a chanter of Torah), over which I can obsess so much that I'll ignore the melody. Tetzaveh is also read during the week before Purim, a holiday about hiding and revealing. (I've already found one commentary that makes this connection--I'm sure there are many more.)

I'm looking forward to letting these ideas simmer until sometime in February, when I'll no doubt wait until the last possible minute before the deadline to write them down.

Friday, November 11, 2005

215. Sarah

I've finally begun to understand the emotional rhythm of the annual cycle of holidays and Torah readings. (Prior to becoming involved at my synagogue, the only pattern I noticed from year to year was a recurrence of excellent meals at Rosh Hashonah.) The Yamim Nora'im cycle from hope to despair to joy, a high note that continues as we read about the creation of the universe. It dips when we get to the Flood, God's own emotional rollercoaster, but redemption remains just a parasha or two away. Humankind would never get anythying done, however, if these mood swings continued. So from Noach's drunkenness onwards (so much for being "blameless in his generation"), the cast of characters settle into lives of steady pettiness, jealousy, vanity, evil, and other usual, unflattering human traits.

I've been thinking about Sarah, in particular. We focus on her bravery and strength, but--even though I know, thanks to the reading I'm doing for this course, that she was acting in accordance with the legal and cultural norms of the time--I really don't like her very much. I can't get over the Hagar business; how can anyone be so mean as to turn away her own son and the selfless, powerless woman who bore him?

She can because we can; she was also human. Last night, as the rabbi spoke of Lekh Lekha and the same ideas about self-inflicted boundaries that I pondered a few days ago, I got a little bored. Yeah, I've heard this before. Stop bugging me; I know what I have to do. I had the same reaction when the Bar Mitzvah boy read an essay about the importance of accepting our flaws and mistakes. Then I thought about how much I always forget, year after year, and need to repeat these lessons. The annual return of Parashat Lekh Lekha is a nudge to pay attention and get out of myself, and remember that I'm no more or less human than those archetypes whose traits, for better or worse, I've inherited.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

214. Ushpizin

Last Saturday night, after my palms stopped sweating over the Torah reading, a friend and I went to see Ushpizin, a small, sweet movie about a family of religious Jews in Israel and the very unorthodox pair of guests ("ushpizin," a Sukkot tradition) who come to visit. We agreed, afterwards, that the film was unusual because it didn't fall into the trap of presenting their lifestyle as a novel oddity, but rather a fact requiring no justification. Stories of people who live far from the mainstream too often concentrate on how different they are from the rest of us rather than on the basic struggles we all share.

That said, the most important character in the movie was their crowded, poverty-stricken community, where all aspects of life, all hours of the day, centered upon religion. It was clear from the first scene that our protagonists would cease to exist outside of it; it was their breath and sustenance. The husband was a ba'al teshuvah, newly and fervently observant. I can imagine how this path one day presented itself to him and demanded to be followed, and how he longed to be in that land, on those streets, and didn't feel whole until he arrived. I can imagine it, but can't feel it. My life has not been without holes, sometimes even big ones, but they've been filled, more or less, by the particular object of desire or a messy but workable substitute. Floating often in the soup has been a generous dollop of guilt: why not walk a little closer to the edge of the cliff like a real artist, like a person with a social conscience? Sometimes I do, but more often I choose comfort and lack of drama.

I'm going to Israel with my synagogue in a few weeks, my first trip ever. I never really wanted to go before. For many years I just didn't care, and for others I felt unworthy of planting my feet on its soil. And, as I've become aware during a class I'm taking on the forces that have tied its people to their land, I've always believed, deep down, that everybody, all of them on each side of the conflict, were nuts to remain. Why do they, like Abram in Lekh Lekha, persist in going out, going far, going to themselves, within such a beautiful but broken place? I've never experienced this kind of life threatening, death-defying yearning, and it doesn't make sense to me. I wonder, sometimes--idle wonder, speculation without desire, because I feel no need to create holes where they don't exist--what different dimensions my life might have if ever I felt this level of need. I can't wait for the trip, am truly thrilled to be going--but I think my friends are more excited for me than I am. I don't understand Israel and so am wary, even though her language and stories have become a major part of my life. It's confusing.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

213. Children's service, part 2

Everyone started to talk and laugh about rainbows, but the room became quiet (as much as a room full of pre-schoolers can) as soon as the cantor removed the velvet covering from the sefer Torah.

He sat down on a chair and held the scroll vertically by the two Etzei Chayim, the wooden rollers, so that everyone could see. This is no easy feat, since it's heavy and quite unwieldy when rolled all the way to the Bereshit (Genesis) side. As is the custom at the kids' service, I got down on my knees on the floor right in front and started to read, the service leader wedging a portable mic between me and the Torah. Thank goodness I wasn't wearing a short skit, since all the kids would be able to see right up it. It's a really strange position for any task, let alone chanting Torah, and even more so when the cantor himself is hovering right above you, watching you move that yad from word to word. Well, I thought, at least he wasn't in the sanctuary a few minutes ago. (But of course everything is recorded, so he can hear my stumbles any time he might choose. Maybe he won't.)

I started reading, and after a moment or two the cantor said something, very softly. I couldn't hear him over the noise of the room, so decided: when in doubt, just keep going. He spoke again, this time a little louder: "End it." End what? What did this mean? Did it have some religious significance? Were the syllables even in English? I could not, as I was trying to concentrate on the melody that went with "a fire of pleasant odor" in any way parse the phrase. Then, suddenly, I understood; he wanted me to stop reading. These were little kids, and Noah's Ark is a long story. I had no idea how far I was from the end of the sentence, but decided that God would forgive me if I picked a random word for the melody that signaled the end. I chose "lev"--heart--which sounded symbolic of something, although I had no idea what.

I stood up. "Say yasher koach [congratulations]!" yelled the cantor. ""Yasher koach!" screamed the kids. He gave me a contrite smile. "Sorry... they're only used to hearing three verses..."

"No problem!' Although it would have been nice to know beforehand. But being in a room filled with children was truly in the spirit of Noach--a word that shares the same root as "rest," the whole reason we have Shabbat. And it was just the right taste I needed of the world to come after feeling certain that my struggles with the trop had added significantly to the imperfection of this current one.

Monday, November 07, 2005

212. Children's service, part 1

My chanting experience on Saturday, however, did offer some fun in addition to all the angst and sweaty palms. I returned to my seat and tried to regain my composure, and suddenly heard a little voice in my left ear:

"Can you come read at the children's service? Now?"

Crouched in the aisle was one of the family program administrators, who must have been waiting to race over as soon as I left the bima. The cantor usually chants for the kids, but sometimes he doesn't. I have no idea why. I had read at the children's service twice before, both times with a few days' notice, so this request took me by surprise.

Good, I said to myself--I'll have another chance to get it right.

So I ran out of the sanctuary with the administrator, and into a chapel filled with a few dozen dancing, singing, and randomly jumping around girls and boys under the age of six, and their parents. They were in the midst of parading the sefer Torah around the room, the cantor pounding away on a piano and the service leader, a rabbinic student, yelling above the happy confusion that in just a few minutes they'd hear all about Noah's Ark.

The cantor stopped playing and began to unroll the scroll. He turned to the kids, who seemed ready to explode with excitement.

"Have you ever seen a rainbow?" he asked, bellowing over the din.

"Yes!" said a voice from the crowd. "Last night!"

"You saw a rainbow at night?" said the cantor, laughing. "Really?"

Sunday, November 06, 2005

211. Three minutes

Of course, as I realized afterwards, those three minutes sounded not nearly as awful as I imagined. I pronounced the words correctly, which counts for more than the tune. And I've learned to keep going no matter what, a tactic that masks a world of problems. I can separate the singing part of my body from the nervous part; my throat no longer closes up, my breathing remains strong, and I'm able make nice sounds even amidst all sorts of irrational inner turmoil. This gives the illusion that I'm in control when I really am not. People shook my hand and offered congratulations, and I know I gave a good performance. But I had fallen short of the mark. Whether I had been stricken with confusion in awe of the words themselves, or was simply overwhelmed by insecurity, I still believe I failed at the task of singing those lines in a manner befitting their importance and glory.

I want to chant with confidence so that I may fulfill both the spirit and letter of the honor to which I've been entrusted. I thought about approaching the rabbi with my questions, but what's he going to say? Relax, don't get nervous, chill. You'll be fine. And then he'll go back to the life and death issues from which I've just wasted his time. Nor do I want seem like a nervous wreck trying to curry compliments, which is how I sometimes feel. The next time I chant, I'll be more realistic and less full of myself, and read a shorter portion. If I'm at all worried, I'll ask the cantor if I can take a look at the scroll prior to Shabbat so I can see the words in their native form. I need to remember that my life is not about those three minutes, but what happens in all the spaces between--the rest of my actions and choices, upon which I will ultimately be judged.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

210. "Leave the Ark."

(Interrupting Simchat Torah, once again.)

Outside my window right now is nothing: fog, a wall of white wrapped around my building. New York City could be gone, tohu vavohu ("without form and empty," Gen. 1:2), for all I know. But I'm not worried, since I'm connecting wirelessly to the Internet; technology is playing the role of Noah's dove. The three aliyot I chanted yesterday came right after that part: "And God spoke to Noah, saying "Leave the Ark..." I had practiced it a million times, but it hadn't really "set" (see Jello-O analogy, below), wasn't yet ready to withstand the assault of my nerves. Most of the time I'm able to choose, consciously or unconsciously, to remain calm when I chant Torah, and can channel anticipation and excitement into the energy of concentration. But on Shabbat morning, impeded by a mix of insecurity and awe at the words I would be reading, I could not. I walked up the bima shaking, in a cold sweat. I gave myself a pep talk: hey, you've led High Holy Day services! You've even led them without a voice, and were OK! So of course you can read three paragraphs in front of all these people. Get over it.

I didn't. The first aliyah went fine. The rabbi whispered "Beautiful!" when I finished, which only made me more nervous. I stumbled a little in the second aliyah and began to dread the third, the most difficult of the bunch. I looked at its first line and couldn't remember the trop, which I had sung in my sleep the night before. I took a deep breath and everything came back, but then my eyes began to play tricks; even with the yad leading my way, I was unable to find the beginning of the next line once I ended the previous one. The line breaks, as usual, were different from my tikkun, the words in unfamiliar places, which suddenly seemed very confusing. I felt myself slipping into panic, and continued to lose the trop. Both rabbis, one on each side of the bima, started singing softly--wonderful, except they used slightly different melodies, and so I couldn't discern either. I continued, finding landmarks on the road, big signs that said: "Familiar word! Familiar tune! Go!" So I did, presaging Lekh Lekha, next week's parasha. By the time I reached the end, I was racing to leave this land I no longer liked very much.

Friday, November 04, 2005

209. The scroll


We danced in frenzied, ecstatic circles until I was dizzy. As the music grew louder and faster and we went around for the thousandth time, the woman holding the sefer Torah in the center of our group caught my eye. She held out the scroll to me, and began to remove her tallit.

Sometimes people appear in your lives just when you need them. it was the same woman who, a few years earlier, I sat next to during the very first Shabbat morning service I attended at my synagogue. Back then I thought she was from another planet; now I was the one about to jump through space and time. As we continued to shake and sway and spin, she guided me into the center of the circle, draped the tallit over my shoulders (the custom is never to approach or touch a scroll without wearing one) and gently placed the sefer Torah in my arms.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

208. Jell-O

I still, unfortunately, have no time to write anything of substance, and will be working late into the night. (Which for a self-employed person is much better than the alternative, so I'm not really complaining.) Since this blog is all about chanting, I feel obliged to note that yesterday I feared, for the first time since I started doing this a few years ago, that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I was given one week to learn an entire column of Torah, an amount that took me three weeks this summer. I panicked; being unprepared is not an option. I decided to take advantage of the fact that I don't have a boss (except for myself, which is why I work way too hard), and spend a few hours this afternoon practicing my portion over and over and over again. I feel much better now, and will swear off any more marathon learning for at least a few weeks. By tomorrow I hope those 24 verses will migrate from the short-term, tip-of-the-tongue part of my brain and settle into the humming-it-in-the-shower-because-I can't-get-it-out-of-my-head section. Preparing to chant reminds me of making Jell-O. It sets when it sets, and you can't rush the process.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

207. Still way behind

...with life, work, and sleep, and looking forward to that elusive caught-up state when I can sit in Starbucks in the company of a four-million-calorie espresso brownie and write about Simchat Torah and Yom Kippur for a few hours.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to learn 24 verses of Parashat Noach for this Shabbat. (I originally agreed to half that much, but don't know how to say no. To reading more Torah.) I've concluded, happily, that it's much easier to learn the words for "beasts of the ground" and "birds of the sky" than those pertaining to sacrifices and skin diseases, the sections I usually get to do over the summer.

These are the most positive and optimistic verses I've been fortunate to sing: we leave the ark and learn that God will continue giving us second chances, and then the promise is sealed, on both sides, with a rainbow. I can think of no better words with which to begin my next year of chanting.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

206. Entitled

(Continued. I also must acknowledge that I'm suffering from holiday burnout... four weeks of two of these per week, followed by Shabbat, has taken its toll. Now, don't get me wrong--I loved it, every minute of every endless meal and Amidah. But the Tuesday/Wednesday business was a bit much, and I agree wholeheartedly with this blogger. For the next week or so I'll probably not post extensively, since I need to spend a bunch of time resting/catching up on work/remembering what my brain does when it's not praying/otherwise pursuing real life.)


By the following Simchat Torah I understood more about why we danced in celebration of those 80,000 fixed yet fluid words, words that changed to reflect how different we were each time we read them. I remember listening to Lech Lecha that first Saturday morning at my synagogue and thinking, what a great story! I can't wait to hear the rest. (I studied it in Hebrew School, and elsewhere in life, but only vaguely.) When we came around to reading Lech Lecha the following year I was sad, at first; I figured it would never seem as exciting as during my initial introduction. But I was wrong; the story took on new shapes and sounds, its mirror tilting in a completely different direction, because I knew more than I did a year before, had lived and seen more. As I held hands and flew in circles with my friends on Simchat Torah, I understood that we were dancing through the open door of the coming year. The people embracing the scrolls were just average, like myself, all of us not the best Jews in the word but similar in one respect: we wanted to read those words again. I was no longer afraid to hold the scroll, because I knew that my desire to learn gave me the right.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

205. Not entitled


The first time I ever wore a tallit, and the first time I held--or even touched--a sefer Torah was on Simchat Torah, four or five years ago. I had danced, awkwardly and self-consciously, a little bit during the previous Simchat Torah. But I never went near the scroll, the holiest of objects, because I didn't think I had the right. I hadn't been a very good Jew, hadn't really cared about any of this stuff for years, and had only the vaguest idea about what was going on. Standing close to a Torah, let alone waving it in the air for all to see, didn't seem like an honor worthy of someone so ignorant.

Friday, October 28, 2005

204. Surprise

(I have more to say about Simchat Torah, but interrupting myself.)

Yesterday evening I emailed the cantor about reading Torah in November. He emailed back with some verses, and at the very bottom:

"By the way, can you lead services tomorrow?"

Well, let's see, let me check my calendar... I responded, needless to say, in the affirmative. I hadn't been asked to lead on a Friday night since late April, which didn't really mean anything; I spent May recovering from surgery, and over the summer there was just one service with more than enough rabbis to go around. I had nevertheless convinced myself I wouldn't be asked again. Never mind that I just led for the High Holy Days. A corner of my brain resembling chipped china held together by peeling beads of Super Glue, the irrational, insecure part, swears very loudly on some days that I have no right to be up there. My voice isn't good enough, or I'm singing too aggressively. No, I should be less aggressive. I could go on and on. People tell me I sound beautiful, that my praying moves them, and I don't believe a word they say while also wanting to hear it a million times more, because I know they're right. It's very confusing.

That praying and singing in front of my congregation is one of the best ways I've found to feel close to God, I have no doubt. But I never know when or if this gift will appear, and when it does I'm afraid I'll screw up and ruin my chances for the future. Shabbat is a taste of eternity, but it arrives without fail every week whether or not we fell short of the mark. Helping lead services is my occasional, random, and extraordinary lucky ascent to a place so much higher than real life, so much fun, that even as I'm there I become sad for when it must end and wonder if I will again be invited. I'm annoyed at myself for dwelling on potential loss rather than current abundance. I want to become better at living life now, the moment it's happening.

Tonight was the first time I helped lead in the "new" arrangement, sitting in a circle with a bunch of musicians (cello, guitar, flutes, percussion) rather than standing at a bima. I could actually see them, rather than hear disembodied notes coming from somewhere behind, and could also hear the congregation in the packed sanctuary singing back. I led with the same rabbi I was with all day on Yom Kippur, with whose high, strong voice it's so easy to blend and harmonize. I got lost in the sounds we were creating. It was a blast.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

203. Dancing

I should really be asleep right now, but my body and brain can't stop moving.

Every year I doubt that the fun of the past Simchat Torah can be surpassed, and every year I'm wrong. Imagine the happiest wedding you've ever attended, and multiply by a thousand. The sanctuary was filled tonight, hundreds and hundreds of bodies linking into swirling eddies that moved like friendly tornadoes from one end of the room to the other. In the center of each circle was a sefer Torah, or two or three, held aloft or clutched to someone's heart as they jumped up and down and tried to raise it as high above the crowd as they could. I moved between rings of spinning dancers to chains of people with their hands on each other's shoulders who snaked past each deliriously rotating circle. Sometimes I felt like I was carried on a big human wave, and if I closed my eyes would keep gaining momentum until I took flight above the crowd. From the balcony we looked like an earthquake, unconstrained bodies bubbling to the rhythm of the keyboard and drums.

The rabbis were the most ecstatic of all, arms around each others' shoulders as they jumped, in love and joy, the highest of anyone.

I was going to leave after the fifth hakafa, but kept remembering that this was it, after tomorrow--time goes back to normal. I didn't want it to end just yet. To leave all those people and Torot when I could still stand in their midst and feel them dance around me seemed almost horrifying. So I stood off to the side, gathered my energy, and stayed thorough the Torah reading and last hakafa, the one for teenagers who were much more awake at that hour than the rest of us. Everyone kept dancing even after the service ended, the cantor in his funny shirt with the musical notes all over it singing niggunim as loudly as ever. I finally tore myself away, because I wanted to make sure I had enough energy to do it all over again tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

202. Hoshanah Rabbah

(Interrupting the story.)

Yesterday was Hoshanah Rabbah, the "great Hoshanah." After a final waving of the lulav and etrog, we circle the sanctuary seven times and chant, over and over again, "Hoshanah!" ("Please save us!"). Then, as a symbol of the separation of our sins from ourselves, among many other things, we beat the willow branches of our lulavim into the ground until their leaves fly off. We dance and sing with joy and relief as bits of green rain over our feet and pool onto the red floor of the sanctuary. The gates are finally, truly, closed. This custom seemed weird and pagan when I first learned about it a few years ago (my Hebrew School skipped over the whole plant-destroying thing). But with each season, and every time I listen for the crack of those branches as I strike them with all my power against the floor, I feel more and more emancipated from myself. Last year explodes into the air like dark confetti, and this new one becomes as eagerly anticipated as the hours of dancing soon to come. The ancient and psychologically astute rabbis who devised these holidays knew we needed to first live through the depths of Yom Kippur in order to fully understand the elation of Simchat Torah. The optimism of Sukkot and catharsis of Hoshanah Rabbah are rungs of a ladder that help us climb back up to our happiest and most hopeful ways of being.

Shemini Atzeret services are this morning, the eighth day of Sukkot and the holiday when we plead for rain to nourish and sustain us. (A confusing prayer, this year; water hasn't been very good to humankind these past months. And it's still pouring in New York.) Simchat Torah begins in the evening, with the verses that make me mute, followed by seven hakafot, circuits of dancing, until 10 or 11pm. (Some Orthodox shuls go all night long. Until 9/11, a mile of Upper West Side streets were closed off for the equivalent of a massive religious rave ten thousand strong. Tonight some congregations will venture outside for the first time in four years, but my synagogue will still opt for carpeting and warmth.) We go home for too little sleep before repeating the whole thing on Wednesday, and conclude after many, many hours with a Torah reading that connects Moshe's death at the end of Deuteronomy to the creation of the universe and first words of Genesis. The month of spiritual marathon ends, and our story begins anew.

Moadim l'simcha ("seasons of happiness"), and may your feet remain strong!

Monday, October 24, 2005

201. ...and the morning [part 2]...

"Did you hear what happened?" said my teacher to the rabbi, as we were all trying to figure out where to hang our wet coats. And then she turned to me. "Are you going to be gabbai sheni?"

Apparently the cantor and I were not the only ones in less than optimum health. One of the two Torah readers, a man who had been doing it every year on Yom Kippur for the past dozen, wrenched his back the night before and was unable to stand, let along hunch over a scroll. My teacher, who had learned High Holy Day trop when she was about twelve, was called into emergency service. So of course she could no longer fulfill her other role as second gabbai, following along with the reader to catch mistakes, since she now was the reader.

The rabbi hadn't planned to ask me, and was going to draft one of the student rabbis into service instead. "Do you want to do it?" she asked.

"Well, sure," I said. "I did it last year." True, last year I had more than a few minutes of warning, and was able to prepare for the occasion. But since then I had been gabbai sheni at the sunrise service of Shavuot, after staying up all night long in study. I was, in some strange, tentative way, starting to feel like an old hand at it.

"Terrific," said the rabbi. "So today we're all women here," she added. My synagogue is so egalitarian that no one ever seems to think about being egalitarian. This took some getting used to on my part, but once I did I couldn't imagine participating in any other way. (Most of the Torah readers are women, in fact, reflecting the many younger members motivated to learn what their grandmothers were not allowed to.) If the rabbi hadn't pointed out that everyone involved in the service was female, I might not have consciously registered it. But once she did, I began to kvell for my entire gender. I wondered what my father would have thought. I knew he would have been very proud.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

200. ...and the morning [part 1]...

Why, asked the rabbi yesterday morning at services, does a holiday characterized by our joy and connection to nature follow so soon after one in which we are commanded to be ascetic and solemn? Because, she suggested, teshuvah, and our completeness as human beings, requires both our souls and our bodies. To ignore one of these aspects--to remain in the mode of Yom Kippur, and forswear the earthbound happiness of Sukkot--would be to cut ourselves off from the possibility of healing all of ourselves, those parts most strongly connected to our physicality as well as those beyond it.

On the morning of Yom Kippur day, I awoke and thought: Now I have to stand in front of a lot of people and be serious. Time to start feeling serious. Then I took a deep breath, shut my eyes, and tried to sing a few notes. And, hallelujah, I still had a voice--it hadn't disappeared overnight like it did a week ago. I immediately wanted to jump out of bed and dance with maniacal glee, and access the physical, joyful part of myself that was scheduled to be exercised in about a week. But instead I just lay there for awhile and smiled, happy but feeling the need for decorum on a day of such gravitas, even though no one was watching.

The rain was still going strong. I put on my white clothing and an old pair of running shoes, and began the windswept walk to services. I was early, and sat in the little room for many minutes by myself listening the musicians warm up. Away from the sounds of the storm and the traffic of the business day that was just beginning, I felt like I had climbed into a safe, quiet cocoon.

The rabbi arrived and placed her waterlogged sneakers on the floor next to mine, as did the shaliah tzibur for Musaf, my Torah chanting teacher, a few minutes later. The Secret Rabbi Room began to look like a gym.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

199. And the evening...

Unlike other services, in which the most important stuff is preceded by an hour of warm-up for spiritual muscles--short prayers, lots of psalms--Kol Nidre just starts. There's no preamble; you've already had a month to get ready. "Please rise as the Ark is opened." The hum of conversation quiets as the musicians begin to play, two verses alone at first, with cello or recorder standing in for the human voice to follow. All the scrolls are removed from the Ark, a crowd of honored congregants at the bima embracing each one for the rest of us to see.

The first verse of Kol Nidre starts in a whisper, the cantor nearly speechless on our behalf, and then builds until we cower in awe at the end. There are many stories of the Kol Nidre melody changing lives, its echoes beckoning to people on the street who hadn't been in a synagogue for years. It is indeed sad and beautiful and immensely moving, but I find other prayers equally so. What touches me like fire is its delivery rather than its tune, and how the singer of Kol Nidre lays bare to the rest of us the soft yearning of his contrition, the heated power of her pleading. My synagogue has three simultaneous Kol Nidre services, and this year I was fortunate to be at the location of the cantor himself. He hadn't fully recovered from laryngitis; he sounded a little hoarse, a bit tentative. But, for me, this made his song even stronger. Raw and partly stripped of its elegance, I could hear his pain and longing more clearly than ever.

After the evening service and teaching that followed, I walked home in the loud, insistent rain. I sat on my sofa for awhile and wondered about life. Then I sang, reviewing Shaharit and Ne'ila one final time, and--in a non-traditional but, to me, fitting form observance--read some Jewish-themed blogs written by people coming to terms with pain and loss. I gave thanks for continuing to go from strength to strength, especially after a year when it seemed, for a few moments, that I might not be able to do so.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

198. Kol Nidre afternoon

No one could remember the last time it rained on Yom Kippur, which presaged Parashat Noach--a day of chilly, unrelenting downpour. This seemed to me like a good sign, since the state of the world has gotten worse and worse despite years of beautiful weather on the Yamim Nora'im. Maybe bad weather means that people, along with nature, are ready to behave in an opposite way, as well.

On Wednesday afternoon (just a week and a day ago--it seems like much longer), I stopped work early and shut down my computer and all its humming, glowing ancillary devices. My office got very quiet; the time began to feel different and special. I changed into an all-white outfit (except for a big black winter coat and umbrella, the elements taking precedence over style and symbolism), and went to meet my friend A. for our traditional overstuffed deli meal before beginning the fast. It felt strange to get on the subway with rush-hour crowds. I wanted everyone to stop moving and acknowledge the arrival of Kol Nidre; I wished that the whole world would calm down and listen along.

We ate sandwiches on rye fat enough for twelve, and I downed one final glass of Airborne. I don't know if the stuff really works, but my cold was almost gone and I was too superstitious to miss that last chance to OD on vitamin C. After running back home in the rain to get my entrance card, which I'd carefully placed on a table by the door and forgotten to take, I arrived at the synagogue. Every seat was filled, the air flush with expectation. We wrapped ourselves in our tallitot, the only time of the year when we wear it at an evening service, and waited for the music to begin.