Monday, February 28, 2005

21. Trust

I kind of expected the rabbis to sit in the Secret Rabbi Room before services meditating and listening for the Voice of God. In fact, they arrived a minute beforehand (which did not help my blood pressure the first time I helped lead, wondering if it really was Saturday morning or if I had made some colossal mistake and the universe was now operating on a different schedule that no one bothered to tell me about), made small talk, discussed the service for a moment or two, enjoyed each other's company. They had, after all, already spent days discussing this week's installment of the Voice with each other. Now they could relax.

At first I felt like an intruder in that room. How did I merit entrance into their private space? What right did I have to sit on their sofa? Would I even be here if they knew how much I didn't know? But I think they knew, and it didn't seem to matter. They wished me Shabbat shalom, smiled and made me laugh. They had done this thousands, tens of thousands of times; it was the most important part of the week but, all things considered, not a big deal. Nor was my presence here, despite my alternating fantasies of doom and grandiosity.

I have no trouble taking chances, but have never chosen to go skydiving, which this felt like. If you treat a person like she can do something, then she will. Their trust in me was better than a dozen parachutes.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

20. The Secret Rabbi Room

I call it the Secret Rabbi Room. From a door behind the bima they emerge at the start of each service, mysterious as Israelites arising from the Red Sea. Or at least that's how it seemed until I got to see, and exit, the Room for myself. The one in the synagogue is a casual little lounge, with a tan leather sofa, photos of Israel, and the imposing locked back of the ark along one entire wall. There's a pile of boxes filled with CDs, some old siddurim, and a mirror. It wouldn't be good to face the congregation with spinach on your teeth. During my moments of complete terror right before the first time I helped lead Shabbat morning services, I was excited to notice a Gemini II alarm panel on the wall. I was, coincidentally, in the middle of designing a Flash animation for an alarm company to show how to arm this very same panel after it was installed next to your front door. I tried to staunch torrents of adrenaline by contemplating the meaning of safety, whether in the real world or during prayer, but all I could think was: how weird is this. Some of my reality is here.

The Secret Rabbi Room at the church where we also have services is much more interesting. Officially it's the Robing Room, where clergy and choir dress in ceremonial polyester. A narrow triangular space wedged behind incapacitated organ pipes, it's furnished with chipped metal file cabinets ("Anthems--inactive--A-K"), crumbling Bach keyboard octavos sandwiched by bookends on a dark, scratched wooden desk, and shelves with mountains of paper reaching up to the vaulted ceiling. Most prominent, and at eye level when you put your coat on the desk and pour yourself a drink of water, is a box labeled "FEATHER BOA." I've always wondered what Methodist ritual this is for.

19. Gifts

Yesterday the rabbi talked about the extra soul we're given on Shabbat--and must, sadly, return at the beginning of each week. It enlarges and completes us and, like any other priceless gift, comes with responsibilities. And so we're often afraid to take possession of this jewel for fear of losing it. He wasn't referring to the most obvious reasons why people don't observe Shabbat, the thou shalt not travel or use electricity parts, but rather the commandment to rest--to think--to live quietly and without outside distractions in the world that we've wrought during the other six days, and contemplate how we can make it, or ourselves, better. To confront ourselves for an entire day, a frightening gift.

I understand. I'm reminded of a Nelson Mandela quote that a friend sent me a few years ago on a New Year's card:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are indequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us... You playing small doesn't serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to manifest the Glory of God within us. It is not just in some; it is in everyone... As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Thankfully, I don't have too many problems with darkness. It's the light that scares me, which has made me blink on those Friday nights when I've stood in front of my community. Or when it moves past Shabbat and starts to illumine the week, as I'm on the 1 train trying to learn the tune that accompanies 5,000-year-old sentences, ignoring the dirt, noise, people who won't put their bags on the floor, a man who hasn't bathed and sticks a cup in my face and I give him change out of guilt, not compassion, and I hate myself--then I look down at my xerox of the tikkun and remember that we're not required to complete the task, only to begin it.

I will always have self-doubt, because I'm human. I want to study more. No, I need to concentrate on the rest of life. This stuff is just icing. You get fat if you eat too much, but it tastes so good. I'm relieved that I share the world with other confused people. I remember the joy of discovering my talent at this strange, ancient skill; I savor the knowledge, down here in the subway tunnel. It's harder to do when I go upstairs into the real sunlight.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

18. Unease

I've never had a problem going to a restaurant after Friday night services. I'm with my friends and we're communicating and enjoying ourselves; this is a big part of what Shabbat is about. (Tonight, in fact, I was out until 11 with great people and conversation.) But it doesn't seem right on nights when I help lead. On those nights I want to sit down at a table in a real home, make motzi, wash, do kiddush. I suddenly want a close family, a deficit I rarely think about these days. And I also feel a responsibility to perform the rituals; I've just stood in front of my community and prayed, and therefore have become a role model, whether I like it or not. What I do on my own time need not have any bearing. But I feel as if it should.

I don't yet know what to do about this new unease, which is making me sad in equal proportion to the joy I've experienced from leading. I certainly don't have the energy to cook and invite people over on those nights. I'll figure it out.

Friday, February 25, 2005

17. Helping lead

Tonight was the fifth time I've helped lead services. Each instance has left me more amazed, confused, and drowning in endorphins than the last. An unexpected sensation is starting to feel familiar: the prayer leaves the bima, and then it comes back. God has given us a strange sort of yo-yo. Or it's like a photographer bouncing light off of a reflector, hitting all the right shadows until the eyes behind the lens can see enough to do their job. After the first or second prayer, when I've figured out the evening's particular choreography (the three of us will rotate; concentrate on my peripheral vision to know when she wants me to start) and remembered how to breathe and forgotten that I still don't believe I've been asked to do this (each time more casually than the last, this one as a p.s. in an email), I look up from the siddur and see people smiling, always one or two in the front so peaceful that I'm jealous. I want to know what they're thinking. Then a rolling wave seems to gather from the back of the sancuary and find us up front. It becomes the current in a river of communication between people I can't see--the cantor at his keyboard, shaliach tzibur to my right, cellist and drummer behind us--until I feel like we're gathered in one small space, about to embrace.

The rabbis also emanate this energy. The first time I stood next to one of them during services, it felt like a gust of wind about to knock me over. I thought I'd fall if I didn't hold on to the bima. Force and temperature are a little different for each rabbi, one the insistent sway of wheat on a plain, another the blowing of fall leaves in a spiral.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

16. Ridiculous

Chanting Torah was a completely foreign concept; I had never even entertained the idea of entertaining it. How could I, in good conscience, stand in front of my community and pretend to tell a story in which I didn't understand 99% of the words? Going up to the bima was also intimidating. I felt unworthy of being near the Torah scroll; my knees shook on the few occasions when I was part of a group aliyah.

Monday, February 21, 2005

15. Learning

C. and I became friends because we sat near each other at Saturday morning services. She came to say kaddish for her father; I was there to figure out why I was there. We took classes together and she always asked the kind of questions that made everyone stay late, while I tried to fade into the background, intimidated by rabbis who were human and a roomful of people who seemed to know everything in the Talmud.

"I want to learn to chant Torah," she said one day at kiddush. "I want to learn from S." They had gone to college together. S. was small and blonde with a beautiful, sweet voice that had an edge, like an angel in a leather jacket. She tutored bar mitzvah kids and led High Holy Day services; I had no idea S. was a plain old member of the congregation and not a cantor.

"I want my friends to learn with me. So?" said C.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

14. The world to come

It was completely right from the beginning, like falling in love. But it took me a long time to trust. It was easier to say that I had doubts than to admit I had none. This congregation, like the Pope, was very serious about prayer--in their own way, with a different kind of choreography. They prayed like Mrs. B played the piano, with their entire bodies, with clapping and rabbis pounding on the bima, anathema to my usual ideas about dignity. I felt both silly and liberated around all that earnest, honest emotion. Eventually I got over myself and did it, too.

I came here to write about a thought I had while helping lead services two weeks ago. I decided that I finally understood about Shabbat as a glimpse of the world to come, the time when the Messiah will arrive and all things will be peaceful and good. I started writing about a feeling that slipped in and out like mercury as I stood at the bima, like a flash of light too bright to watch for more than a second. And then I read it back and thought--am I nuts? All I did was sing. Overstuffed, hyperbolic language. Get over myself. (I sounded like a surfer for months after the High Holy Days--the only words I could come up with were "awesome" and, sometimes, a little calmer, "overwhelming.")

But I did feel that. I felt everyone praying with me; if my arms had been longer, I might have touched it. I don't yet trust this part, even though I know it's right.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

13. The Pope

(Another interruption of my narrative, which seems to have already lost it sequence. Oh well. )

I used to love to watch Pope TV on Christmas eve, live from the Vatican. All that pomp and choreography, plus hushed commentary to help you follow along, just like a golf match. Eveyone was so serious. Grown people who believed in ghosts, ignoring all reason; I felt sorry for them, particularly John Paul II. It was (no pun intended) mass delusion.

When I had a moment of awareness, years later--a sudden and jarring formulation, for which I was not prepared, of the idea that I did believe in God--I thought I had gone crazy. It made no sense. Rational people didn't waste brain power on this. It was months before I even mentioned it to anyone. In the interim, I started going to services. It was an unusual synagogue, full of singing and dancing--based upon my prior experiences, I barely recognized it as Jewish. And there was often a woman standing at the bima, which was utterly alien. I told myself that it was fun, and a great place to meet guys, but the real reason I returned each week, even going so far as to wake up early on Saturday morning, was to convince myself that I wasn't nuts. Here were hundreds of smart Jewish people who prayed; they couldn't all be living in a fantasy world (especially since a large percentage were mental health professionals, this being the Upper West Side), could they?

Friday, February 18, 2005

12. The piano

On my sixth birthday, the front door opened and two large men deposited a piano in our living room. It was a gift from my ancient Aunt Estelle, who lived in an apartment in Forest Hills covered with brocade, dusty velvet throws, and china figurines of cherubs in humorous poses. This was her childhood piano, a dignified Hardman upright with real ivory keys that bore its age much better than she did. My mother had told Estelle that I played acutal chords for my kindergarten teacher the year before, and they both construed this as a sign of genius.

So for the next six years I took lessons from Mrs. B, a former concert pianist from Argentina who swayed back and forth like a rowboat in restless waters whenever she played. Mrs. B, who had a towering hairdo and wore tight, mod clothing, lived in a musical world of emotion, drama, and lots of pedal, even when my feet could barely touch the floor. We covered the basics, but all I really remember studying is Chopin--waltzes, nocturnes, mazurkas--with a particular emphasis on the Nocturne in E flat minor, op. 64, no. 2, which took about four years to learn. I swam in rubato, aping Mrs. B's every pitch and yaw, and didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing. I wasn't very good at reading the bass clef, so just picked notes that sounded right. Mrs. B was never happy about this, and after a few months each piece was covered with so many red pencil flourishes that I could barely see the page at all. But I didn't mind, because she was nice and never made me play boring scales, and my mother enjoyed the post-lesson glimpses over coffee into her exotic world of childhood stardom and dalliances with conductors.

Although I hated to practice and was so terrified during recitals that I never remembered anything that happened on stage, Mrs. B convinced me to go for an audition at the Julliard pre-school. It was about the same time as my Bat Torah, and I also felt like an imposter. They liked my nocturne, and invited me to be a student. I declined, with my mother's support. I was greatly relieved. Mrs. B moved away, and I soon discovered that singing in a chorus was much a more sociable musical outlet, and knowing how to play the piano--even without any knowledge of music theory--was an asset.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

11. Music

There was no music at my childhood synagogue. Of course the prayers had melodies, but compared to the singing I would do in college--Bach, Brahms, masses, motets and requia soaring to the tops of churches which I felt guilty being in at all, but loved just the same--well, there was no comparison. When I was very little, only 3 or 4, I remember my father standing at his usual spot in the front row of the sanctuary, mumbling rapid, off-key sentences in a voice that shook the floor even at its softest. I'd run around his feet and then he'd raise me onto his shoulders and let me watch as the men swayed and the women milled about in the balcony. Jewish music, as far as I knew, consisted of the low rumble of men's voices, as well as some pretty bad kids' songs.

I learned otherwise at the mortgage-free synagogue. They imported a special cantor for the High Holidays all the way from Israel, a fact the rabbi never let us forget. "And now we will be led by Cantor Shlomo FromIsrael," he intoned each time the man with the funny hat stood up. But I would have been impressed even if his last name was FromHackensack--I didn't understand why, but his voice gave me the chills and made the skin on my upper arms tingle. Whenever he sang the Hatzi Kaddish, in a mode I had never heard before, some exotic Middle Eastern sound, it replayed in my mind over and over without my conscious intervention. I went to services on the second day of Rosh Hashonah instead of sleeping just to hear him sing that part again, which he did many, many times. I told no one about my discovery.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

10. Holidays

My Conservative boyfriend and I went to High Holiday services each year at our local synagogue, a festival of blue hair and walkers. He also sort of kept kosher and ignored Shabbat, but sat through every minute of every Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur service as penance while I overslept on purpose and hated myself. We were always in rows NNQ or ZZ, which I figured were the initials of those Israelites way in the back at Sinai. ("What did he say? Honor thy who?"). One year the man in front of us died of a heart attack during the Amidah, the standing prayer that he probably shouldn't have been standing for. It was horrible, but not really a surprise. The sermon never changed: the mortgage, the mortgage (pronouced "muggage"), we need your money. Never any mention of our souls. (Alas, the words fell on deaf ears; the synagogue disappeared a few years after I moved away, along with its long-empty Hebrew school and grand, gold mosaic tree in the lobby honoring the scores of the deceased who did pay the muggage for a few decades.)

Saturday, February 12, 2005

9. After college

(Although I haven't been posting every day, I've been writing other things that didn't seem to fit here. So this exercise seems to be doing its job.)

Despite trying to ignore it, I was confronted with the need for Jewish ritual the year after I graduated from college. My mother died. In a fog of grief and not really sure why I had to make this decision, I was asked to choose a casket. A simple pine box was traditional, they told me. But the pine box looked forlorn and naked in the showroom next to the fancy, polished ones; it didn't seem to go with my mother's outfits of perfectly-matched pantsuits and colorful scarfs. I picked a simple, elegant dark cherry one, which I imagined would set off her white hair quite well. Of course I knew this made no sense, but it seemed more significant than going with an ugly pine box just for the sake of following rules.

Monday, February 07, 2005

8. Back to the Chicken Incident

This evening a group of us studied Kiddush Levana, an ancient ritual honoring the moon and its symbolic unity of opposites--light and dark, male and female, rationality and emotion. I've been surprised, over the last few years, to learn about these and similar concepts, because as a child I was taught that Judaism was a religion of absolutes. You either observed or you didn't, and anything halfway made you a bad Jew. Since halfway was the only method I knew, by the time I got out of college I began to avoid thinking about the whole thing, else I would drown in guilt. Some might have turned the other way, to ritual and Orthodoxy, but I didn't see the point. My father prayed three times a day, and still drank and yelled and was not very nice to my mother, who ate BLTs. I found no correlation between being a good person and being a religious one. Eventually I abandoned the entire exercise, just like I did the chicken--with some muttering and furtive glances, hoping no one saw me.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

7. A detour

Interrupting the episodic story of my Jewish life to post from the Yale University Library (who knew you could do anything under these stone arches but look at musty cards in a catalogue drawer? time has certainly marched on). I'm here with my chorus for a concert; I haven't been back for over a decade. I just paid homage to the very spot where the Chicken Incident occurred. I really didn't want to come. I was too busy, too tired, it's Shabbat, etc. But it's not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be, although I do feel like I'm dreaming. The buidings, the air, the snow, is all familiar as my own skin. The sky is still Cerulean blue, the temperature too nice to stay cooped up inside painting, a thought that went through my head almost every day for four years.

The scale has changed. Cross Campus and Woolsey Hall were once much larger. Hendrie Hall (my picture and name are still on the wall!) and Phelps Gate are about the same. And the A+A Building--scarier and much more imposing that I remember, with front stairs so deep and rain-grey that I was afraid to walk in. Why? Did I edit and soften its image during all those post-college anxiety dreams? Some of my most unpleasant experiences were in that building (all relative, to be fair, since college was never really unpleasant). It's where I lugged seven huge, wet canvases a few weeks before graduation, getting paint all over my new black coat, and was asked by my evil freshman drawing teacher what had happened, what ridiculous things had I been doing over the past two years to end up painting like *this*. It's where I learned that I had no idea what I was doing, and ducked out to go down the block to the Daily News (closed today, unfortunately), where I did a much better job of feigning competence.

Does every graduate come back and wonder, did I really go here? Did I read all those books? How come some of the details are deep and pristine, but others seem misplaced? It's alien, but also too familiar. Maybe I haven't changed as much as I'd like to think. Or maybe it's just an indelible memory of home--because, as a place, it's all I have now. There's nowhere else to go back to, except in my mind. (This is OK; my mind is a good place to visit.)

I wish I could call my mother and tell her how it feels. The culmination of her life, in all aspects, was my presence here. I haven't missed her this much in a long time.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

6. College, part 2

I called my mother and got a chicken recipe. It worked, to my surprise. Feeling virtuous, I added a lot of salt and ate it alone in my room on a paper plate. I then carefully wrapped the leftover 3/4 of a chicken in aluminum foil and planned which of the remaing seven days would be fleischig.

There remained one problem: cold, I needed cold for the chicken to remain viable until we finished crossing the desert. I didn't have a refrigerator, and my friends who did had already filled them with beer. Well, it was March, and still pretty chilly. I noted the handle conveniently situated on the on the outside of my fourth floor window, just the right size from which to safely dangle a bag filled with fowl. I could bring her indoors once a day to remove a leg or wing, and then re-hang the bag from the handle. She'd be first chicken in the world to nest on a dorm room ledge.

It was a brilliant solution, as long as March remained seasonable. The sun, unfortunately, came out on the fifth day of Passover. By dinnertime, the chicken no longer looked quite as appealing, and I opted for a salad instead. On the sixth day, I forgot about her. I was afraid to open the window on the seventh day, wondering how a chicken baking in direct sunlight for almost a week might smell. By the eighth day, like the Israelites in Beshallach who thought it really would be better to stay slaves than face the unknown, I was in a state of complete denial.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

5. College, part 1

My relationship with Judaism during college is best described by the Chicken Incident. Although I never went back to services after my triumphant Shacharit, I decided to keep eating kosher food, such as I interpreted it. My mother, on the other hand, was thrilled to never make a plate of borscht or kishkas again after the divorce. She began to delight in BLTs and other pleasures forbidden since youth. I think I needed to hold on to some structure during this time of family turmoil, or perhaps I had six years of the fear of sin as inculcated by Rabbis N and S still rattling in my bones. Or maybe it was a little of both. In any case, I avoided treyf at college, although during my freshman year erroneously believed pepperoni was a vegetable, never having encountered one before, and for a few months ate the turkey tettrazini, which was pretty good. I tried the Kosher Kitchen, but although I enjoyed my mother's particular style of canned, overcooked, and wilted cuisine, I did have my limits. Besides, real Jews went to the Kosher Kitchen, and I was starting to feel like an imposter.

Passover posed a problem. During my freshman and sophomore years, I subsisted on hard-boiled eggs, dining hall salads, and jars of gefilte fish that my roommates found alien and disgusting. I craved protein. In my junior year, I decided to take advantage of the small basement kitchen available to undergraduates and cook myself a chicken. Never mind that I had never cooked a chicken before, and that it wouldn't be officially k for p, and that I had nowhere to put it. It was close enough, and would keep the ghosts of Rabbis N and S at bay.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

4. Hebrew school, part 2

Queens became Latino and then Asian, and Hebrew school shrunk to a graduating class of two, myself and a frail girl named Bayla. I was, nevertheless, a regular attendee of Jr. Congregation, where I sat in the back with my cool older friend Jill and giggled at our unfortunate shaliach tzibur, who wore large glasses and had no thumbs. I won the Top Student award; my classmate was crowned Salutatorian. Because I was a girl and we were Orthodox, a Bat Mitzvah was out of the question. My mother believed that I deserved at least a few savings bonds to commemorate this six-year ordeal, so insisted they make up some sort of ceremony instead. They called it a Bat Torah, and Bayla and I got to share the leading of services on a Sunday morning. (Years later, I recognized this as Shacharit; never, during any of those six hours each week, did I learn what it was called.) I sang the Ashrei prayer, which was very exciting, and offered a speech written entirely by Rabbi N. I recall that it contained the word "equipage," something to do with horses. My mother didn't understand the speech, either, but the rabbi insisted that the occasion was too serious for the words of a 12-year-old, so we went along with it.

Despite my outfit of orange hot pants and a satin blouse, which my father didn't like one bit but had no say in, since my parents had divorced by then, everyone was very proud, and so was I. After the final thank you note was written for the last Cross pen set, and all the cold cuts consumed, I didn't set foot in a synagogue again until college.