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.