Tuesday, April 26, 2005

60. A Song of Ascent

Last night I dreamt I was climbing up the side of a beautiful, enormous, ornate stone building, which I knew was a house of worship. I kept losing my footing--my heart would race, time after time, and I'd start to slip, sure I would fall--but I managed to hold on. Finally I reached the top, and everything was OK.

When I woke up, I remembered that many of the Psalms are called "songs of ascent." I found Psalm 121: "A Song of Ascents. I will lift my eyes to the mountains: from where will my help come? My help comes from God, Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip, He will not slumber--your Guardian."

I'll be offline for a week or so, maybe less, navigating though mitzrayim, a narrow place, with the help of both heaven and earth. I hope to be back soon. See you shortly, whomever you may be.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

59. The day arrived

(Resuming the story. Happy Passover!)

The day arrived, a Sunday morning. Four of us were chanting, and our teacher and the other students, along with some very devoted friends, also woke up at the crack of dawn to join us for moral support. Bleary-eyed and nervous, we retreated to the rows of chairs along the sides of the dark sanctuary to review lines about grain offerings and bulls of pleasant odor. My xerox of the tikkun was almost disintegrated by now, the fold separating the right side of the page with the vowels and notes from the left side with the unadorned facsimile of the scroll just bits of white paper dust held together by a few thin strands of fiber and prayers.

Despite my fears, the heavens did not split with peals of thunder and lightning when it was my turn to read. I went up to the bima, said the blessings, and placed the yad on the scroll. My hands were shaking, keeping time with my knees; I realized I would have to grasp the yad with both hands in order to make sure it didn't take me to Leviticus, instead. Suddenly it was just like my first piano recital, or the time I stood in front of everyone at an a cappella workshop and sang "Dream a Little Dream of Me," looking out at a crowd that seemed curved and distorted in their seats like the reflection in an elevator mirror, amazed that my racing heart and the nakedness of what came out of my mouth did not cause me to collapse into a little ball on the stage. I remembered that I emerged intact from those experiences, and took a deep breath and began to chant.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

58. A new week

(Interrupting the story yet again.)

I led services again tonight. It was the eighth time--and it did feel like the beginning of something, a new week that comes after the close of the seventh day. We were at the synagogue, a little emptier now because so many people are out of town for Passover. I was with a different rabbi this time (we have four, an embarrassment of riches). We didn't face the Ark for the second half of the service, the action that so unnerved me when I last led at the synagogue. I asked why; the rabbi said he feels cut off from the congregation when he does this, unable to make eye contact. I agree.

I got to the Secret Rabbi Room a little early this time. As usual, no one else arrived until 5:55 (through the Secret Rabbi Staircase at the far end of the room, so they don't have to walk through the congregation to get there). I sat by myself in silence and calm for ten minutes, knowing something good was about to happen. There is no better feeling.

I wasn't nervous, even though I was a little hoarse and very tired. I was secure enough about what I had to do that I could pray, and focus on the meaning of the words rather than how they were coming out of my mouth. Again, I felt everyone holding me up, making it possible for me to stand and sing.

Friday, April 22, 2005

57. Debut

(Resuming the story.)

We decided to make our collective debut during Chol Hamo'ed Pesach, the middle days when you're allowed to go to work and services are at 7:30AM. This is generally not my best hour, especially on a stomach full of matzah, but I was glad we would be in front of the small, stalwart morning minyan crew instead of the thousand who usually show up on Shabbat. I volunteered to learn the Maftir, the extra portion that's repeated each day. Three of those days became mine, with some extra verses tacked on for the last.This way I figured I'd have two more chances to get it right if I screwed up the first time.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

56. Walking

(Interrupting the story.)

I've just finished taking a few meditation classes, a new thing. Among other exercises, we spent time walking: no particular path, no destination, just back and forth in the room, focusing on the shift of our weight or the moment when one foot touches the floor and the other begins to lift up. It was a challenge to concentrate on the smallest elements of the process and push away all other thoughts; my brain is usually engaged in various frantic dances. But I recognized this kind of calm. It's how I feel when I'm chanting Torah, as the path is being shown to me by the words in the scroll and the yad, the pointer, that leads from one to the next. I have no choice but to focus on what's there, one word at a time. Leaping ahead will get me nowhere. I need to be fully in the present, with a still, quiet mind.

The Hebrew word for Jewish law is halacha, coming from the root for "path." I used to think it meant that the path was defined, so I must try to follow it. Now I understand that it's more like the meditation exercise--finding my way by walking, exploring my world until I happen to leave the grass and stumble upon the road. And, once I'm on it, enjoying the journey one step, one word at a time, honoring what will come and what has passed, and not worrying too much about where I'll end up, because I can't possibly know.

Monday, April 18, 2005

55. Preparation

But the puzzle fit together after a few more classes. In the tradition of children beginning the study of Torah, we first attempted to connect the trop phrases by reading the opening lines of Vayikra: "Vayikra el Moshe v'yidaber Adonai elav meh ohel mo'ed." "And God called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the tent of meeting." Since we were learning this new thing in the middle of our lives, in an uptown apartment of meeting, starting in the middle of the book seemed perfectly appropriate.

We got out our highlighters and Xerox copies and stumbled through, understanding why the parents of thirteen-year-olds always looked so proud. It was also very exciting for me to acquire a new skill that didn't involve a computer or yelling on the phone. Then came the hard part. Knowing how to sing the trop when it was all strung together into a melody was only half the job, since none of the markings are in the scroll itself--no sibling partnerships of vowels, dots or upside-down apostrophes, not even punctuation. Just one long, naked, inspired sentence. Thankfully, there are paragraphs; Moses cut us a little slack.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

54. The class

We met at the fancy but haimish apartment of a woman who would turn 70 in a few years and planned to celebrate by chanting on her birthday. On Monday nights, over carrot sticks and dip, we sat around her coffee table as S. taught us the eight families of trop patterns, each a different combination of short, singsong melodies described by little chicken scratches of symbols, two small dots and one big dot, half a backwards, upside-down apostrophe, a "v" tipped over on its side, a compact, self-assured community of sounds that rested above and below their parent letters and competed for attention with the similarly situated, fatter and darker vowel markings. I had been staring at the trop for years, ignoring its presence like I might the strange man who lives in the alley. This learning was like making friends with an old nemesis, getting to know each other over a few beers. I started to think of the symbols as scrappy upstarts determined to change the status quo--you vowels may have gotten here first, but we'll run rampant over your turf and make the story much more interesting. So there.

I listened to the tape of the trop over and over again and practiced everywhere, in the shower, in my sleep, humming the additive patterns of their names-- "Merchah tippechah etnachtah...merchah tippechah, munach etnachtah...tippechah sof-pasuk..."--to the rhythm of my feet as I walked to the subway. The first few lessons were frustrating. I was used to the concept of one symbol per note; this business of phrases with names seemed unduly complicated, and it was awhile before I could admit that it made sense.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

53. Beginning

(This goes right after "15. Learning")

Chanting Torah had always seemed like one of those interesting and ridiculously difficult things other people did, like roping calves or writing symphonies, solidly ouside the realm of experience I happened to occupy in this lifetime. On the other hand, thirteen-year-old boys and girls did it all the time, so I knew it was easier than brain surgery. And it involved singing, an opportunity I could never turn down. Intrigued by the challenge, I agreed to give it a try.

The persistent C. managed to assemble a total of six people including, to my surprise, one guy who had chanted at his bar mitzvah and now wanted to learn to do it the real way--from the trop, the notes and phrases, as opposed to blind memorization, the usual, painful way kids are taught. The other four of us were women with backgrounds in Jewish learning ranging from not much, but lived in Israel for awhile, to years of Hebrew school but nothing useful taught or retained, just like myself.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

52. Listening

(continued from 51)

One Shabbat morning at the end of services, the man sitting right in front of me turned around.

"You have a beautiful voice," he said.

I tried to respond, but words didn't come out. No one had ever said this to me before, and I'm not pretending to be humble for the sake of the story. I blended perfectly, they all told me, was great, did a wonderful job--but never that particular phrase about the sound from inside, unprocessed.

My parents surely would have said it if I had ever let them hear me. A chorus is perfect camouflage for someone who needs to be in the spotlight but is too chicken to admit it. I mastered the art of being heard while remaining hidden; I was happiest when no one recognized my voice. I learned to retreat in this way even when front and center in a quartet, an amazing feat of invisibility. I was quite aware that I was a living, breathing metaphor for being stuck in life, work, and relationships, but people still applauded and I went home when it was over and felt great. I loved music and it was just a hobby, after all, so I made sure it was fun. There are certainly worse ways to avoid self-reflection.

I got better over time. I became a lot more honest with myself, braver, confident, and even sang solos whenever my ego got the better of my terror. But I was often surprised that anyone wanted to listen. To me I sounded very ordinary, because I knew much of the sound was locked somewhere in mitzrayim, a narrow place, still trapped on shore.

"Thank you," I finally remembered to answer.

Monday, April 11, 2005

51. Singing along

(This goes right before "15. Learning")

I had been going to Saturday morning services for about six months when we shifted our venue from the church to the synagogue. Until everyone came back home in September, the Manhattan summer exodus meant we could actually fit in a space that held 800. Despite its beauty, the synagogue made me feel uncomfortable at first. I had just gotten used to the other place. And we sat closer together; it was harder to be anonymous.

I knew most of the prayers by now, and had discovered how much fun it was to sing along. Unlike choral singing, it was okay to be loud and not blend. I didn't have to balance with the tenors. It wasn't a performance. I was singing for myself, and no one else, for the first time in years--perhaps ever. I was shocked when I realized this.

It had taken me a few months to admit I actually liked the music at my synagogue. It was folksy in a Middle Eastern sort of way, featuring rhythms you could clap without hours of prior deconstruction--and simple, in the lexicon of a hotshot amateur, was supposed to be unsophisticated. No matter that it touched my soul; I still wasn't sure it mattered. Somehow, over the years, I had become a vocal snob, chosing to disdain all singing done by the untrained hoi polloi. Back when I lived in the small, quirky world of a cappella, I was proud of my relative open-mindedness. I would never be an obsessive reactionary like those friends who sang nothing but vocal jazz, Josquin, or Portuguese. Just throw it my way, I'm the alto for all seasons--as long as they're dramatic, storm-filled winters, or passionate, blistering summers. Any music that couldn't be sight-read without a measure of angst I considered a waste of time. And I was so intent upon notching my belt with Gesulado, Monteverdi, and legions of obscure twentieth century French composers that I had begun to lose sight of the reason for doing it at all. I very often sang because I could and always had, but not because I wanted to. This singing along--this taking part in music, rather than taking charge--reminded me that I did want to, always and very much so.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

50. Leaders

For each of the three holiday mornings, Shacharit was co-led by a rabbi and a member of the congregation. The teams rotated between service locations, so we had a different combination every day. The rabbi's role, at this early hour of the marathon, wasn't much more than announcing pages; everything else was done by the hazzan. My favorite was a rabbinic student, a woman with a dark, clear soprano voice who sang as if she was inviting us to join in a dialogue with her best friend. She had the most peaceful expression on her face, almost a smile, her eyes closing occasionally in emphasis or assent. This was not a performance, but rather a personal conversation that we were privileged to witness. I was frustrated when Shacharit ended and the next hazzan took over; I wanted this one to open the door wider so I could get more than just a glimpse of the object of her affection.

The Birkat Ha'shachar, the morning blessings, are sung on Shabbat in a minor key, which has always sounded a little ominous to me, as if we knew the recipient of our thanks wasn't sure of our sincerity. On Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur the blessings become major, a cascade of descending notes that gain momentum and leap into perfect fifths like the swoop of a bird buoyed by a gentle wind. The words are the same as usual, but speak on those days of unqualified gratitude and exultant hope. It's early and the sanctuary is still cool; the tune reminds me of the first days of April, poised between seasons and not yet too warm.

The holiday Shacharit melody stuck in my head like a pop song and kept playing over and over again. I went home and tried to re-create it like I would with "Jet Plane" a few years later, standing in front of the mirror and singing glorious expressions of thanks to my cat.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

49. Morning service

The choir had to be in our seats at 9AM to open the service with "Ma tovu," "How goodly are your tents" and how great it is to be in this holy place even though we are not yet quite awake. Most synagogues can barely attract a minyan at 9AM, but at mine it's cool to arrive early, declassé to show up late or not pay attention. We are truly countercultural. We always had a pretty good crowd for the beginning of Shacharit, although I tended to arrive at 8:59, running up the stairs to the balcony like a crazy person and thankful my illustrious choir status let me bypass the long line at the front entrance and sneak in through the side door.

I love the Shacharit service and its warm-up of blessings and psalms to get us in the mood for everything yet to come. The world is still gathering itself together, the sunlight almost at its brightest but still calm and sleepy. Shacharit is always peaceful, even when the world is not, like on the Yom Kippur of 2001 when our prayers were drenched in fear and I refused to shut off my cell phone just in case we were attacked and I had to call the police. Shacharit reminded me that witnessing beauty was possible and even required in order to survive and remain sane in the face of hate.

Friday, April 08, 2005

48. Organist

The best part of singing in the choir was where we sat: the balcony to the left of the stage, way up front, with a bird's-eye view of the rituals as well as the 2,500 other people melting in the late summer heat. No ordinary altar for the Christian Scientists; this was a grand platform bedecked with pedestals, balustrades, and other important ornamentation, accessible from the pews at ground level by marble stairs that had been worn over the years into little slippery valleys. Two "catchers" from the congregation stood ready at each side to make sure those going up for aliyot didn't trip and kill themselves in the process.

The rabbis stood at a small bima at the front of the stage. Behind them was a large portable Ark and behind that, hidden from view to everyone except the choir, was Carlos the organist. Carlos had been friends with the rabbis since they were kids together in Argentina, and didn't speak a word of English. He was a dentist by day and played keyboards, all kinds and sizes and with great love and exuberance, much of the rest of the time. He traveled to New York every September and spent hours sitting, swaying and sweating below the towering gold pipes, using all of his limbs to fill the whole space with sounds that reminded us how small we really were.

Whenever I saw Carlos, who always had more fun back there on Yom Kippur than seemed to be legal, smiling up at us from behind the ark, I knew that the new year would be full of hope and joy.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

47. The choir

I was in the synagogue choir for four years of High Holy Days. For most of my life I hadn't even known you could put those two words together without committing an act of dangerous and unpardonable syncretism. Aside from a few performances of "Chichester Psalms," I had never sung in Hebrew before and was worried, at first, that I wouldn't be able to keep up. I soon learned that very few people in the choir knew Hebrew, or even how to read music. This group would probably not end up at Carnegie Hall, unlike my other chorus. We were sometimes not very good. But we did know how to pray, which made up for many wrong notes and missed entrances. Our harmonies, like a scuffed brass handrail on a steep flight of stairs, were solid and even shone occasionally, and helped everyone get to the next level.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

46. Travel agent, part 8

So we walked to the end of the block and, safely out of sight of anyone who might be offended, hopped a cab to the diner. We were late; the tenors from the Orthodox shul, sopranos from the fancy Reform temple, and the non-Jewish bass who was snuck into the octet upstairs at our synagogue under an assumed, Semitic-style name, because the conductor couldn't find anyone else of the correct persuasion who sight-read and had a low D, had already arrived and were all working on their second plates of curly fries.

The pre-Ne'ila double cheeseburger ritual had been going on for years. Everyone who was anyone in the world of professional synagogue High Holiday choral singing made an appearance. I listened to tales of rodents in choir lofts and cantors who pretended to know Hebrew but actually read from a transliteration. I learned about ex-boyfriends who couldn't stay on key if they were handcuffed to it, and how everyone made more money in Italy. I was awed and honored to be initiated into this thirteenth tribe, although stuck to a tuna fish sandwich. After about an hour, we said goodbye and ran back in the rain to our respective gigs, ready to stand in front of those closing gates with the kind of energy only bacon grease and a milkshake will engender.

Before the last note of "Hatikvah" had stopped vibrating, our quartet ran up the stairway behind the main sanctuary to the accountant's office, where we joined the downstairs octet in what was my most spiritual moment of the holiday: signing for a nice, fat, check, and bidding farewell to my new cool friends.


When the hazzan called that Tuesday in May with his improbable question, I had already told the other synagogue I'd be back. I convinced myself that the joy of singing was an acceptible substitue for atonement, and the cash (which I would surely give to tzekakah this year) compensation for the super-hard praying I would cram in at evening services at my own synagogue, when I wasn't at the other place. I didn't really believe any of this, but was so flattered to be included in the elite corps once again that I didn't know how to say no.

I had already put the contract in the mail. It was a brit, a convenant, right? I had given my word. I told the hazzan I wasn't available. Well, maybe I was, possibly, but didn't think so. It's OK, he said, really; there will be other opportunities. I hung up and thought, what have I just done? If this, in fact, is really happening, am I insane? I called three friends and asked them, and they agreed that I was, and also believed I didn't make it up. I called the cantor the next morning and told him I could do it.

Monday, April 04, 2005

45. Belief

(Interrupting the story.)

"If God is unable to listen to us, then we are insane in talking to Him."
--Heschel, "Man's Quest for God," p.62

Half asleep, trying to extend the nice, long day and push away worry for awhile until I wake up too early a few hours from now, I might as well try to explain how I think of God.

I like Judaism because you don't have to define God in order to remain a subscriber in good standing. You don't even have to believe. But I didn't connect with Judaism on any but the most superficial level, and that filled with guilt and confusion, until I understood that I did believe. The leap from not knowing to knowing happened in a second, barely perceptible but absolutely provable, like those Natural Geographic films of a flea jumping from one hair to the next. It was the difference between feeling alone in and feeling in partnership with the universe, between hearing my voice echo and hearing it in harmony, or even in cacophany; in either case, it was not alone. It was an understanding that the things I could not possibly understand, beauty and goodness as well as evil and tragedy, the mysteries that are opaque at their smallest and most basic level, like one strand of DNA that creates a genius and the one right next to it a miscarriage, were in their most terrible incomprehensibility proof enough to me that something else big was going on. And my existence was part of the process. The rest was God.

It has been a big relief to find the language to articulate this awareness.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

44. Travel agent, part 7

This synagogue, unlike my own or the one I went to as a kid, where we had no rich people, subscribed to the traditional fashion show model. One must wear one's most conspicuously expensive outfits to High Holy Day services. So that we, the hired help, would not get confused with congregants trying to fulfill this mitzvah, the singers were costumed in long, bright blue polyester choir robes, beneath which we wore white blouses, black skirts, and dark hose. (The men got to wear pants.) If we should, God forbid, remove the robes, our true identities would still be known.

I don't mean to sound nasty. Everyone was really nice and friendly, and I understand the importance of sartorial custom. But after experiencing the kind of Judaism that doesn't have a dress code, it was a challenge to dive back into those frightening waters.

On Rosh Hashonah morning we huddled around a small bima in front of the congregation, who sat moribund in gold plastic folding chairs. These people did not, at first, seem to be enjoying themselves, nor did the cantor, as rivers of perspiration flowed like the Jordan down the sides of his head. But we sang with all our heart and volume, and by the end of the service most of the congregants were still awake. We were a resounding success.

We did it again on Yom Kippur, the unabridged version, with Musaf ending after 3PM. This was my first experience fasting while also expending a few thousand calories of energy--we sang during every prayer, mostly at the top of our lungs as we tried to match the volume of the heartthrob operatic tenor. The room started spinning at the end of the service. We had an hour and a half break before N'eila, and I was about to go home and sneak a nap and an apple when the bass pulled me aside.

"The diner, Third Avenue," he whispered.

Friday, April 01, 2005

43. Fun

(Interrupting the story.)

I helped lead services tonight for the seventh time--so different from the sixth! It was fun. The church is enormous, but from up front everyone seems close by, not at all like when I sit in the congregation and look up at crowds ready to spill off the balcony or burst through the grand, domed ceiling. The perspective is different from the bima. The sanctuary appears smaller, condensed, like a big stone living room.

The mood was joyful and electric. People danced in the aisles and jumped up in their seats and clapped even after Lecha Dodi. I felt like all of me was singing, no parts left out, extraneous packages of worry and work stashed back home under the bed where they belong.

Services at the synagogue sometimes feel a little more formal than at the church. The dancing is warmer and calmer. And even above the music and clapping, I swear you can hear a buzzing, rustling song from the Moorish ornamentation around the Ark, interlocked circles and angled terra cotta paths of red and gold and a kind of blue made from the color of darkest water and highest clouds that move back and forth from floor to ceiling like passengers on a glorious jeweled railroad. I become mesmerized by the sound of the walls, like I'm dug into soft sand on a perfect beach with waves teasing my ears. I want to listen and not move. Maybe, in a large space like the church where there's more room and a simpler achitectural canvas upon which to project a visceral response to prayer, it's easier to leave the embrace of the crowd and get up and dance.

I don't know. So far I'm more comfortable leading services at the church (probably because I've done it there six times already). Unlike some of my friends, I was never unnerved that we met in a church. Secular choirs in New York can only afford to perform in churches, so I've sung in dozens, maybe more, over the past 20 years. They feel like home. Synagogues are still a little foreign.