Thursday, March 31, 2005

42. Travel agent, part 6

One day in May the year before, I got a call from V., an old friend from my a cappella days. When not being a technology consultant, he sang with a professional octet at a very fancy, very formal synagogue on the other side of the park. They just decided, for the first time ever, to hire an additional quartet for the non-members Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services downstairs in the ballroom. V. wondered if I'd like to be the alto.

I was quite flattered, especially since my last professional singing gig had been ten years before and netted $11. I loved the holidays at my synagogue, but also knew it wouldn't hurt to widen my social circle. Maybe a nice single guy would hear my voice and want to find out what I sounded like when not fasting. And if he went to that synagogue, he'd probably be rich, too. You never know. I said yes.

Besides V., the bass, and myself, we had a soprano who was a voice teacher, and a red-headed opera singer tenor who looked like an Irish bodybuilder and had last been in a synagogue at his own bris. We were given a large binder of standard Germanic 19th-century arrangements, beautiful stuff, xeroxed from copies which looked to have originated around the time of the crossing of the Red Sea. We would accompany a cantor who had done this for the past 30 years, but never with other singers. His wife, in beige and perfectly coiffed, came to each rehearsal with a tiny tape recorder that she switched on and off, on and off, each time her husband opened his mouth.

We had three rehearsals. It was challenging and fun, an excellent test of my sight-reading abilities. The cantor eventually caught on that he had to follow the written scores or else the four of us woudn't know what to do, and by Rosh Hashanah we sounded pretty good.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

41. Travel agent, part 5

A crisis ensued. There just aren't many large spaces in Manhattan where you can stuff a few thousand people who plan to have a religious experience. The synagogue decided to split the enormous lot of us into three locations instead of two, and found a local theater to accommodate the spillover. The rabbis were happy, because now they might actually be able see the people they were leading in prayer instead of squinting at them from fifty yards away. But this also meant that a whole new complement of rabbis and cantors had to be identified for the additional location, not just one set but a bunch, because these would be three very long days of multiple services.

Because I could sing and appeared to have a clue about praying, I ended up on a list of members who might be able to help lead, if I wanted to learn how. I would have been less surprised had NASA called to say they were saving a seat for me on the next space shuttle. The needle on my figurative scale of improbable things that might happen in this lifetime went past 11 and then danced back and forth in a frenzy. I thought of the lines from the Shabbat morning liturgy:

Could song fill our mouths as water fills the sea...
Could our lips utter praise as limitless as the sky...
Could we soar with arms like eagle's wings...
Never could we fully state our gratitude

I began to sputter an incoherent, incredulous reply over the phone to the cantor when I suddenly remembered: I couldn't do it. I had already made other plans.

Monday, March 28, 2005

40. Travel agent, part 4

(Continuing the story.)

My synagogue is big, about 4,000 members. This poses a problem on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when everyone comes out of the woodwork. Since all those people could never fit at our usual location, we also held High Holy Day services at a church ten blocks away, a grand, Gothic-style monument to Christian Science that sat 2,500 and featured twenty-foot-high gilded quotes from Mary Baker Eddy ringing the stone walls. The massive space did help inspire thoughts of atonement by making me feel tiny and insignificant, but facing east for the Amidah only to stare smack at a building-sized stained-glass window of Jesus kneeling at Mary's feet posed some challenges when trying to concentrate on prayer. From the top of the back balcony, the rabbis looked like highly amplified ants in long white robes.

The church was sold last year, to another, richer denomination that could better afford the mortgage. The new residents declined to have us back.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

39. Not lost

(Interrupting the story.)

"What goes on in the heart is reflected in one's face. It is embarrassing to be exposed to the sight of the congregation in moments when one wishes to be alone with his God.

"A cantor who faces the holiness in the Ark rather than the curiosity of man will realize that his audience is God. He will learn to realize that his task is not to entertain but to represent the people Israel. He will be carried away into moments in which he will forget the world, ignore the congregation and be overcome by the awareness of Him in whose presence he stands. The congregation will then hear and sense that the cantor is not giving a recital but worshipping God, that to pray does not mean to listen to a singer but to identify oneself with what is being proclaimed in their name."

--Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Man's Quest for God," p.86 ([sic] all the "he and "His"; this was written in 1954)

After many days of confusion about how uneasy I felt when leading services last week, I screwed up my courage and emailed the rabbi. I apologized for losing my bearings. I immediately regretted hitting "send"; was I overreacting? Would this make him think I didn't know what I was doing?

He did not. He referred me to the above passage. I ran out and bought the book, and almost lost my breath as I read p.86 while waiting for the subway. Is this what I experienced when I stood with my back to the congregation? Was the problem not that I was so far from everyone, but rather that I was suddenly too close to God, and unprepared for the intimacy? And if so--was it right to have this experience when I was supposed to be speaking for the community? It seems selfish. I don't understand how losing my connection with the people I represent becomes a good model of prayer.

The rabbi generously offered to discuss this with me the next time we lead services together. Until then, I'll look for more answers from Heschel.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

38. Travel agent, part 3

I do design work for my synagogue, so they call about this at times. But occasionally it's the hazzan, the cantor, on the phone. He's a man of few and carefully chosen words, so I know a call from him is not trivial. At the very least, it means I'll be reading Torah again. Hearing this is more interesting than anything a client needs to tell me, so I generally drop everything when Caller ID tells me the synagogue is on the other end.

The hazzan is just like Superman. X-ray vision lets him see through our usual weekday masks so he can adjust the melodies and tempo of the Friday night service in order to calm, bolster, or completely revive us, as need be. From behind his keyboard, hidden from view, he rescues flailing bar mitzvah boys from a churning sea of inadvertent key changes, thus saving the congregation from painful disharmony. On Yom Kippur his voice leaps in a single bound directly from his heart to the heavens, petitioning with urgent sensitivity on our behalf for one final chance at redemption. I have no doubt that this extraordinary sound tempts and maybe even convinces God to keep the gates open for us just a little while longer. Also like Superman, he's mysterious, shy, handsome, and very human.

And it was the hazzan on the phone that Tuesday afternoon in May. I hadn't planned on speaking to anyone so soon after belting out "Jet Plane" with the wrong part of my voice; I felt like I had been caught in an illicit activity, and hoped I didn't sound too hoarse.

He asked me to chant Torah in a few weeks. I agreed, as always, because not even lying across the top of a piano in the sequined dress of my dreams is as as cool as chanting Torah. "Oh, I have another question for you," he said. "Something that will be fun."

"Would you like to lead High Holy Day services?" he asked.

"What?" I answered. The sentence didn't seem to make sense, not in my language, unless the hazzan was referencing a sort of global concept with the word "you," asking if I thought all the women of the world might like to lead High Holy Day services. Or maybe he was speaking in tongues, and I had more to learn about Judaism than I thought.

After a few more moments of conversation, I realized he wasn't kidding.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

37. Travel agent, part 2

As usual, the alto part of our arrangement gave me just a few disconnected words--"Plane, aah smile for me, ooo." I suddenly felt compelled to learn the whole thing, even the oft-ignored third verse. I could have downloaded lyrics from a fan site, but that wouldn't have been nearly as much fun as listening to the CD over and over again until I could duplicate every pause and sweep of Mary's bruised soprano. Nor would it have felt like playing hooky from work, which was my goal.

I sat on the edge of the bed and, in my version of air guitar, air lounge singer, pretended I was revealing the story of an affair to a dark room full of drinking people, explaining how I woke up to say goodbye and catch the plane but he just rolled over and went back to sleep. I think the song is really about an obsession with a man who has already moved on. So she tries to convince herself, and the oblivious figure under the covers, of a future that surely won't happen. That's why she sounds so sad.

My cat rolled over on his back in approval as I tried to sing the whole thing with my chest voice just like a pop singer, which made my throat hurt and helped me understand why many pop singers need to rely on heavy engineering. I looked in the mirror and imagined sprawling languidly across a piano in a sequined dress. This image was too much even for my fantasy life; I felt silly all of a sudden and realized that if I had a boss, she'd be pretty annoyed by now. No matter; I now knew the whole song and one day, somewhere, could be the life of the party.

I felt refreshed, and went back to the computer. The phone rang. I looked at the Caller ID box; it was my synagogue.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

36. Travel agent, part 1

(Picking up the story in the middle...)

There are many downsides to working for oneself, such as not always being able to pay the bills, but one of the good things is that you can take off fifteen minutes or a half hour whenever you want and stand in the middle of your living room and sing. Which I did one Tuesday afternon last May, when I decided to learn all the words to "Leavin' On A Jet Plane."

It was one of the standards of the a cappella group I was in for four years. I hadn't thought about it in ages, until the travel agent in my networking group ("Good Life, Great Travel!") gave us all a CD for Christmas of vacation-related songs. It sat on a pile for many months until I rediscovered it that afternoon, prowling my living room looking to pounce on anything that would provide a good excuse not to work. I was surprised to discover it wasn't the usual cheesy collection--in addition to "Jet Plane," there was Frank Sinatra and Manhattan Transfer. Not bad for free.

This was the original Peter, Paul and Mary version. Mary's voice ached and soared, and I remembered an interview she gave on a PBS special about The Weavers, where she said that growing up she wanted to sound just like Ronnie Gilbert, who would throw her head all the way back and sing in an expression of complete joy and freedom. I wanted to be like Mary being like Ronnie Gilbert.

Monday, March 21, 2005

35. Hiding

Purim is in a few days. (I've learned the megiallah chapter, but am a little stressed about the costume, which is only half done). Most people think of Purim as a kids' holiday, but it's no joke at my synagogue. We're encouraged to party and be silly and strange in our bodies and souls, and wear masks to hide our usual selves in order to reveal our real selves. The rabbi spoke this Shabbat about finding goodness in evil, and vice-versa. There are no absolutes. We live on both sides.

This got me thinking about another kind of opposite. I struggle not with hiding behind myself, but behind time. I wrestle with the dichotomy of planning versus just living. Much of my life has been structured by goals, events that fit within a particular span of time and have a clear beginning and ending. Graduate, get a job, meet your deadlines, get a better job. I liked the neatness of it all, and chose to ignore the messier parts. Then there were some long stretches where life was put on hold, because I couldn't figure out where the beginning was or didn't like the obvious deadline. So I just waited around and trusted that the universe would produce a good timetable. Sometimes it did, sometimes not.

And then there have been the past four years, careening forward without really looking at my watch, discovering mostly good things along the way. This ride follows no schedule, and so I get nervous. I think it's also why chanting Torah and helping lead services gives me joy beyond my ability to express, and yet makes me uneasy. I never know when I'll be asked; I don't even know if I'll be asked. It happpens when I'm just living, like a surprise party. I'm afraid it will end, along with its gifts of new ideas, questions, and energy, so much energy, which I try to apply in ways that best honor its origin. But I also understand that no amount of planning will increase these rewards. They will continue to come, in one way or another, either through singing or something else, the more I just live.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

34. The sixth time, part 2

We faced the Ark for the Barchu. I am always incredulous that the rabbis let me sing those lines. Who am I to invite the whole community to prayer? What chutzpah. I sing them and pray that I'll be a better person by the next time I do it (and pray there will be a next time).

We remained with our backs to the congregregation, and suddenly I felt very lonely. I understood, in that moment, how much I rely upon the presence of everyone else to help me stay focused--I lean on, even leech off of, their energy. Even though I knew they were only a few feet away, I couldn't see them, and got confused. I stumbled on a word in the Hatzi Kaddish, and almost forgot to turn east for the Amidah. I didn't breathe; my voice seemed flat and tinny. I looked up at the Ark, so close now, and its presence helped me regain my bearings. But by that time the service was almost over. The bar mitzvah boys led Kiddush, and I stood to the side feeling like I had just returned from a long journey.

I had been lost in the sanctuary, and was sad that I missed part of the very same service I was leading. I sang Shalom Aleichem at the end with all the energy I could summon, glad to be back.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

33. The sixth time, part 1

I helped lead services last night for the sixth time. It was very different from all the others. We were in the synagogue, rather than the church, and each seat was filled--800, give or take. I led there once before, on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, which was intense, incredible, and scripted. Shabbat is not; it changes from week to week. The prayers and their order never vary, but the energy from the people in the sanctuary does. It seems to be thrown at the bima with the force of a fastball, a large package of calm, excitement, or distress, hurled from the back row, landing at our feet.

At first all the people seemed very far away. The service began quietly; I felt like I needed to whisper in the microphone. I could hear and see everyone moving around, but their feet on the carpet was muffled. In the church, even when it's not filled, you can hear yourself singing, and people walking around, as the sound bounces off the stone walls. Maybe that's why the service can't build as dramatically, or start as softly, as in the synagogue.

We did a slightly different version of the Lecha Dodi tune, and I got it wrong. The rabbi sang along, off mic, and I found my place. I don't think anyone else noticed, but I felt bad that I had made a mistake. Then the dancing began--all that joy! No one was far away now. The crowd was like an embrace; I forget to worry, and just sang.

The rabbi leaned over right before the last verse and whispered, "We're going to face the Ark after Barchu, and stay that way until Kiddush. I hope this is OK." "Sure," I answered, and laughed, "and thank you for letting me know!" They started this practice at the synagogue--but not the church--about a year ago. It changes the leaders of the service into members of the congregation, all praying in the same direction. From my perspective as a congregant, it means I must focus on the words and their sound, and the Ark in front where I know they reside, because there's no rabbi to watch and distract me with his expression, movement, or shoes. (I loved the shoe choices of one of the previous rabbinic fellows. And felt guilty every time I found myself wondering when she got those red boots instead of thinking about Kabbalat Shabbat.)

Friday, March 18, 2005

32. Understudy, part 3

Of course I remembered Musaf--I've heard and prayed it a few thousand times. I also had to learn most of these same melodies when I lead Shacharit last summer as practice for the High Holy Days. I got to the bima and opened the siddur, and the rabbi leaned over and whispered, "I'm sorry to put you on the spot!" No problem at all, really. Any time. I love to hear my heart beating like a very loud dumbek.

It was fine. I had stood in that same spot, and wrangled that same microphone, five times over the past six months for Friday night services, and twice over the High Holy Days. It felt like coming home. But I was definitely tense, as can also happen when you encounter your family. We got to the end of the Aleinu, and the rabbi gestured for me to sing the last line. In my own siddur, which is covered with pencil scribbles reminding me to BREATHE and RELAX, that line is marked with a little red arrow. And I know it by memory. But at that moment, I could neither remember the the words nor find them on the page. Nerves can scramble one's perception, as happened to me many years ago during a performance at an ensemble singing workshop when I lost my place, looked down at the music, and realized I could no longer read music. I stood on stage and smiled for eight minutes, not making a sound, after which the vocal coach, well aware that we were amateurs on vacation who paid a lot of money to get positive feedback, said, "I've never seen anyone stand in one place and smile better than you just did!"

In this case, all I had to do was shake my head slightly and step back, and the rabbi sang the line. I felt completely naked, and very safe. When we got to Kiddush, after all the announcements, he handed me the large silver cup. "Do you know the words?" he asked, over the sound of the keyboard intro. I wasn't sure. I'd heard them every Shabbat morning for five years--but I'd never actually read them, and it's different from Kiddush done at home. (I think.) "I'll help you," he said. I held the cup high and read his lips as we both sang.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

31. Understudy, part 2

I looked up, expecting to see the other rabbi at the bima. She had left about an hour earlier to lead the kids' service, and was supposed to be back to finish Musaf. People were walking around, returning to their seats after following the Torah in its procession, ready to start that final stretch, the runway approach back home.

I relaxed into the pew, an aisle seat about halfway towards the back. My mind drifted to the upcoming joy of a tuna salad sandwich, following by the reading of People Magazine, one of my favorite Shabbat afternoon activities. And then I noticed that the rabbi was looking at me. Right at me. Rabbis who are in the middle of leading services do not generally stare at individuals in the congregation. Speaking from my own, limited experience as a George Plimpton-style cantor, praying in front of a thousand people takes a great deal of concentration. If the rabbis are not, for whatever reason, engrossed in spiritual reflection, then perhaps they're thinking of their families, or a congregant in need, or what's for lunch--but I'm pretty certain they're not sneaking looks at the crowd and trying to identify our various depressed or ecstatic faces. I could be wrong. I had no doubt, in any case, that he was looking at me. It felt like a laser beam boring into my head.

I immediately turned around--surely he meant to catch the attention of the person in the next row. No. Oh, my God--I got it now, he wanted me to come up to the bima. The other rabbi had not reappeared, and he needed someone to help lead Musaf. I pointed to myself, the "Who, me?" gesture, and he gave a slight nod. When the rabbi nods and asks you to come to the bima, you don't dawdle. I jumped up and ran down the aisle, which seemed miles long, praying that I remembered Musaf.

Monday, March 14, 2005

30. Understudy, part 1

So I went back to my seat (see #26). I was very hungry. I never remember to have breakfast before services, so by the time Musaf comes around at noon I'm ready to eat a horse (or, brisket). But I aways get distracted by the light, which helps me make it to 12:30. I love the light in the church at that time of day. Just as the Amidah begins, and sometimes while the bells are chiming noon, the sun starts to flow in through the stained glass and changes one side of everyone to yellow and white. Grey stone walls become the color of tea with honey, and the dark red carpet divides into long, gold columns. The light bouncing off the page of my prayerbook can be so bright that I can't even see the words.

I sat down in the pew, relieved the reading was over and ready to enjoy my aisle seat, light, and later, lunch. The rabbinic student who helped with the Torah service smiled and nodded to the rabbi, and went back to her seat. In the unique choreography of my congregation, this was the cue for someone else to step up to the bima and help lead Musaf. We never have just one shaliach tzibur, although the rabbis can certainly do this on one foot and while sleeping. I'm not sure of the origin of this custom--possibly they're trying to avoid projecting a monolithic, personality-driven rabbinate, or perhaps they just get lonely up there. Whatever the reason, we always have two service leaders and, if we're lucky, the cantor singing along from behind his keyboard.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

29. Memory

Yesterday the rabbi spoke about memory, and its loss. Even in a religion where the past is always present and history remains a part of our daily prayer and, therefore, our lives, forgetting is not always a bad thing. The broken tablets were placed in the Ark along with the whole ones; there is holiness and goodness even in what's fragmented. And the place left open by forgetting becomes fertile ground for new discoveries.

It struck me as a pretty wild concept, especially for Jews. I don't think it applies to most situations. But I do see how it applies to me. By the time I came to my synagogue, I had forgotten almost everything from Hebrew school. I could barely read Hebrew, now spoken by the Upper West Side with a Sephardic accent that ignored half the vowels I had learned in proper, old-fashioned Ashkenzic style. For awhile I tried to pronounce everything my way, the right way, but I crawled painfully along the page while everyone else sped past. I gave up. I decided to follow the crowd, and discovered I remembered so little of my way that it was no problem to re-learn it their way. The space from forgetting left room for this new information, and for everything else that followed.

Friday, March 11, 2005

28. Goodbye, Mr. F.

This morning I went to the funeral of Mr. F., who was generally known as Al, but since he was my boyfriend's father, I never thought of him that way. For ten years he was kind, sweet, almost childlike Mr. F., always smiling and holding hands with Mrs. F. as if they were teenagers.

Even after the difficult ending of my relationship with his son, Mr. F. still came to my concerts. He particularly loved the ones at Christmas, and looked forward to the end when he could sing along with the carols. As S. said in a moving eulogy, it was awkward that he always sat in the front row, but no one complained because we knew he wanted to get as close as possible to being on stage. He loved Bach as much as silly pop songs (he wrote a few, as well, with names like "Plum Loco" and "Coney Island Hot Dog") and, as I learned today, even sent them to Tony Bennett. No luck, and so he turned to silly poetry instead, a handful of which I was honored to receive on holiday cards over the years.

He didn't come to the Christmas concert in 2002, but was right up front in 2003, the last time we saw each other. I cried after our conversation at the reception. I wasn't sure why. He seemed very frail and sad, but still offered a big, open smile. He looked right at me and took my hand, and told me how happy he was that I was doing well. There was something more in his words that I didn't understand, but I was so glad he was there.

At the funeral, listening to the hapsichordist play Bach inventions and hearing the rabbi talk about Al as a stalwart of the Sunday morning minyan, I thought about many Passover seders at the home of Mr. and Mrs. F., with S., his brother and, at various times, grandmother, aunts and uncles, cousins, and in-laws. A big family, jokes, singing--it was a new experience, very different from my father sitting at the table speedreading the Haggadah, or my mother and I ignoring the rituals because we felt funny doing them by ourselves, and pretending that we didn't care. No one seemed to mind that I wasn't really a member of the family. They let me in, completely (well, all but S.--but that's another story), and the jokes and melodies became mine, too. I owe my first really good impressions of Judaism to that nice, dysfunctional group and those seders, and especially to Mr. F.

And in their Brooklyn living rooom, with its long, low couch from the 50s that eventually would sit in my own living room, after some serious reupholstery, and the bright yellow walls and rumble from the el outisde, I first listened to The Swingle Singers. S. had played me some old LPs, but I paid little attention until I saw Mr. F. even more excited and obsessed by this odd music than his son. We tried singing through a few of his carefully preserved octavos. I had learned to love this stuff in college, but didn't realize how much fun it could be until I saw Mr. F.'s look of bliss as he ba-da ba-da ba'd his way to the end.

Mr. F. was my proof that there are gifts to be discovered even in the worst situations, and that one can always benefit from some more childlike wonder. I'll miss him very much.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

27. Purim

I've just started to learn the trop for Purim--I'll be chanting chapter 6, 14 verses, in three weeks (the king can't sleep; Haman thinks he's going to be honored but, boy, is he in for a shock). It's an interesting mix of major and minor phrases, appropriate to the combination of violence and goodness in the story. I have a CD of the whole section and cantillation--I'm trying to learn it phrase by phrase, listening to the trop on tracks 1-8 over and over and then matching these melodies to the markings on the page, rather than just memorizing it blindly from the example, which would be harder because I wouldn't understand what I was doing. I wish I had a little more time, but it'll be just fine, with some cramming. I also need to make a costume. I have a plan, but it I hope to be able to hammer and paint this weekend. I love that I'm learning this in between spending the rest of my waking life in the incorporeal world of pixels and fonts.

On non-leap years (unlike this one), my mother's yahrtzeit falls out on Purim. When I first realized this, a few years, ago, I felt uncomfortable being part of a raucous celebration, but did it anyway. I figured she would want me to be with my community rather than sit around getting depressed. After awhile, I came to see Purim as a celebration of her life, struggles, and achievements--and, of course, her sense of humor. And now I'll be always able to sing the story of the day in her honor.

Monday, March 07, 2005

26. Bezalel

I chanted twelve verses of Vayakhel this past Shabbat. It was the section about Bezalel, with whom I've always felt a little kinship--he was a designer, too, working from his heart. I walked up to the bima, and remembered to ask the previous reader to show me where she left off. She did, and immediately some of the people who were there for the misheberach for healing kissed that spot with the corners of their tallitot. I looked down for a second and saw "Vayomer Moshe el b'nai Yisrael..." --"And Moses said to the children of Israel..." Cool. My fear of having learned the wrong section was baseless, as always. I was ready.

The blessings over, I took a deep breath and begin to sing. I got to the sixth word. It wasn't the sixth word I had learned. Nor was the seventh or eighth. Time stopped. Um, I think I said, um, sorry, I'm in the wrong place. My voice sounded very loud, and I realized I must have spoken right into the microphone. I heard the rabbi answer calmly, start again, and he leaned over and pointed out the correct "And Moses said to the children of Israel..."--in the next column over to the left. I took a deeper breath and started again. After the second sentence, my voice stopped wobbling. The rabbis congratulated me when I was done. All was well.

I learned a few good lessons. One, Moses said an awful lot of things to the children of Israel. Also, it's probably a good idea, in the future, to read more than five words to myself before beginning to sing. And, finally, even though I might be standing in front of a few hundred people, it's not about me, me, me. Even a pretty big mistake on my part will not stop the earth from turning.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

25. Process, part 3

I continue to return to the translation and parasha from which it's excerpted, so that I really understand what I'm talking about. I need to make more time to study the whole parasha in greater depth. I've also started to try to translate it word for word by myself after learning how to do so during two great months of Hebrew tutoring this past fall, which really helps with phrasing--although the trop usually takes care of that part.

A few days before I read, I enlist the help of my friend the Internet Cantor ( The Internet Cantor is always right. He uses a different trop, but I can still figure out if I've learned something wrong. The Internet Cantor has come to my rescue numerous times, and when I do make a mistake, it's generally because I haven't listened to him carefully enough.

My next step is to read the section from my other tikkun, the ornate and exacting "Simonim." This version mediates any lingering pronunciation questions and also, usually, has different line breaks than the "Ktav." I get really thrown if I can't practice from versions where the words fall out in different places. I try not to learn visually, but can't seem to help it. No matter how much I've studied and concentrated on what it all means, I sometimes get confused when I look at the scroll and everything is on a different part of the line than I'm used to.

The final step is to not get nervous. I go to services and try to forget that I'm reading part of a 5,000 year old story that all Jews around the world are also reading at the same time. I attempt to convince myself that it's not as important a task as I might think. I usually fail, and am shaking a little when I go up to the bima. But I relax once I grasp the yad with both hands (which isn't how it's supposed to be held, but I'm afraid my hands will shake if I only use one) and start to sing, and remember that there are brilliant people on either side, and all around, ready to catch and correct me if I fall.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

24. Process, part 2

When I can read the Hebrew quickly and (I hope) correctly, I copy the appropriate section from my "Ktav" tikkun, the blue one. Although it's not always the clearest, it's what I started with three years ago, and now feels like an old friend. (It's also the one the rabbis sometimes follow along with at the bima.) It's generally a pain to run out and find a Xerox machine, so lately I've scanned it and printed it out. Another new 21st century combination of technology and Torah.

I substitute the photocopy for my Treo, folding and re-folding it on the subway until it begins to disintegrate by the time I have to read at services. Now I start to learn without trop and vowel markings, which happens quickly if I'm already secure at reading the right side of the page. I used to go immediatly from right to left columns, mastering each annotated line one at a time and then moving directly to its bare cousin on the left. This lodged the words in my short-term memory, but never encouraged migration to deeper parts.

Once I can read from the left side, I give my cat, Don Carlo, great pleasure by practicing in the living room so he can roll over in a state of bliss, paws in the air and belly exposed. He loves music, particularly me and Glenn Gould. I practice in the morning before I start to work, and in the middle of the day when I take breaks. I practice at night before I go to sleep. I continue to practice the the subway, which leads to some interesting conversations ("I haven't seen that since my bar mitzvah, very cool!"). I try to learn it in B flat major, the most comfortable key (for now; I think my voice is getting higher). I take my tuning fork to services when I read, stealing an A right before I go up to the bima and attempting to hold it through the blessings, which usually doesn't work.

Friday, March 04, 2005

23. Process, part 1

Here's how I learn my dozen or so verses every month or two. It's probably not what the ancient sages had in mind, but it works just fine:

After I've obsessively checked and re-checked that I'm learning the right section, I start learning it from my copy of Etz Chaim, where I can see the English translation right next to the Hebrew. I repeat each line over and over, learning the trop same time as the words, sometimes starting from the end like I used to when studying piano. It's a good way to trick myself; if I started from the beginning, then I might be afraid of running out of time before I got to the end. And even with this method, I still learn the beginning quite well because, well, it's the beginning, and I always forget my plan and start there anyway.

I have the entire Tanakh on my Treo 600, an amazing device. It's the JPS version in Hebrew with incredibly tiny trop and vowels, plus the JPS English translation, which I downloaded for free courtesy of Christian, evangelical Biola University. They offer PDA Scripture on their website in dozens of languages. I doubt they had my particular purpose in mind when they created this database. I really should send them a contribution to assuage my guilt. After I can read the Hebrew seamlessly from Etz Chaim, I practice it on my Treo while on the subway, usually while going back and forth to the gym, trying not to make it obvious that I'm singing to myself in a foreign language, although this might help me get a seat.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

22. Nervous

Years ago, I went hiking in the Lake District in northern England. When the sun began to set, we climbed a hill in front of a wide mirror of water upon whose soft rippled surface shone small golden lights from the houses on the other side. For each valley in the distance, there was another dark roll of the landscape that revealed another hill, and then another and another as far as I could see, as if multiples of lakes and lights stretched around the whole world until they came right back to where I was standing. The birds were already asleep for the evening. Not even the leaves made noise in the breeze. I had never heard such quiet, or witnessed so much soft, grand, goodness of nature. I started to shake, and couldn't catch my breath. I was afraid to move. I felt inadequate in its presence and frustrated that I could only grasp a small part of what it was trying to say, like a student in a class that's too advanced. I stood on the hill and tried to inhale; I knew I couldn't let this opportunity pass, and that I needed to learn from it, be like it. But I feared I was standing too close, and that my incomprehension and messy, flawed humanity would somehow break the hills, the lake, the reflection.

I think that's why the rabbis at my synagogue make me nervous. I'm sure this is the last thing they want me to feel. I've been lucky in life, so far--I've been mostly surrounded by goodness, and even those whom I loved and who loved me but also did hurtful things always had my best interests at heart. But how the rabbis live--and how they teach us to live--embraces more goodness than I've ever seen. It's not the kind of perfection that's on a pedestal, far from it; they're very human. They speak from the ground and, as much as their positions of leadership will allow, share their fears, struggles, and flaws. They raise the bar about what being human means, imperfections and all. So much goodness intimidates me, even blinds me sometimes, makes me speechless. This does no one any good, just like Nelson Mandela wrote. I know my reaction is a function of my own insecurity and that I need to get over myself, as I did when I was self-conscious about singing and dancing during services. I'm working on it. Meanwhile, I stammer in their presence and try to learn everything they have to teach.