Tuesday, May 31, 2005

88. Rhythm

I got up early the next morning morning and walked past trees still wet with dew to the cabin for Shabbat morning services, where I chose a seat further up front. Not since I was twelve had I been to one of these from start to finish. There were only a few of us at first, and the prayers started out quietly, just a little more than whispering. We advanced from one prayer to the next in a smooth relay, and after awhile the words took on a rhythm like brisk walking. More people wandered in through the open walls and across the wooden floor, now bleached white from the morning sun. I recognized them from last night and smiled, and the small group of us moved the folding chairs closer together.

Monday, May 30, 2005

87. Prayer

Prayer was serious, an intense outpouring of the soul. This singing and dancing was like a party, frivolous, so I was pretty certain it couldn't be prayer. But what did I know, because I had never really prayed; I tried, every Yom Kippur when I read the thousands of archaic words and waited for transcendence, but all I felt was hungry. I assumed most of the people around me were faking it as well, except perhaps the old men. The rabbi, in any case, made sure we got through all the necessary paragraphs, so I figured my spiritual rent was covered for the year. I knew that prayer was supposed to bring you to a higher place, and was equally certain I had never stepped on the elevator.

But observing this small river of motion and sound, so unlike my experiences of dutiful mumbling, shook my blood just like on the three occasions when I sung the Bach Mass in B Minor, and I could feel myself climbing up the labrynthine music. We reached the top during the Credo, which had more jazz and breeze and crashing waves in it than anything I had ever heard, and I understood something new. I didn't know what, but I was more alive at the end of the piece than at the beginning. I wanted to stay there, but instead got dizzy, maybe from three hours of improper breathing. Then I heard the applause and fell back to the stage, wanting to do it over again, to return and explore further, despite my exhaustion.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

86. A smile

The rabbi had a gentle, determined voice, light and with intricate twists, like taking your hand and leading you though the woods to a clearing. People began to clap along and some joined in, a man up front with a guitar, a woman in the second row with maracas, accompanying just loud enough so that his singing could float above the music.

Others stood and linked hands and began to dance around the rest of us, just like at the synagogue. Except here, without pews, they could snake behind rows and around folding chairs, so close I almost felt like I was in the dance, too. I froze in my seat, not sure how to react. I couldn't join them, even though I had come here to get to know them. I lived in the real world; we didn't run around like a bunch of hippies. It wasn't cool. And the whispering vestige of Rabbi N., reminding me that instruments made everything null and void, had emerged a few weeks before as I listened to the cantor at his keyboard. Playing an instrument on Shabbat was in the same category as carrying, a forbidden kind of work. I could almost feel the earth churning beneath my feet as various relatives turned in their graves.

Yet I was impressed at how unselfconcious these people were, a state I could rarely achieve. And it did look like fun. I watched the rabbi, whose hands were flying arcoss the drum skin, and who had a broad smile on his face.

Rabbi N. had worn a perpetual scowl. The one at my old synagogue in Queens always looked on the verge of tears, what with the mortgage. From this small sampling I extrapolated that rabbis were not happy people. This--a rabbi who smiled--I had never seen before. I was astonished.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

85. Circles

The seats were arranged in concentric circles and I found a spot in the last ring, squinting in the sun that spread like a beach through the open walls and onto the cabin floor. A man in jeans and a long white shirt, whom I recognized as the friendly guy from the bus who walked up and down the aisle and offered people water from a large bottle of Poland Spring, took a chair in the inner row. He picked up a narrow wooden drum, wedged it under his elbow and against the side of his body, and closed his eyes and started to play a complex rhythm. There was singing from the back, quietly at first, then louder as the room filled with people. After a few moments the man put down his drum and picked up a siddur: "Please turn to page 252," he said. I realized, with surprise, that this must be the rabbi, sitting among the sixty of us just like a real person. Now the sun was setting, casting long orange streaks through the roof window and creating patterns like ribbons in between the rows of our summer sandals, and I could hear crickets outside in the grass trying to compete with our music.

Friday, May 27, 2005

84. Bingo

After three hours on the bus we arrived at Club Getaway, a big adult playground in the woods. We were greeted by a cheery woman in hiking boots who invited us to go rock climbing, play tennis, or even live dangerously and strap ourselves into a trapeze-like device and whoosh back and forth twenty feet up in the air. I was much more excited by the heated rooms and solid prefab shower stalls, and unpacked and joined the rest of us inside a large cabin with a sunroof and three open sides. It was the weekend's stand-in for a synagogue, and had probably hosted many more games of human bingo (wander around the room with a list of questions for members of the opposite sex; mark a square on your game card each time you find an answer or make meaningful eye contact with the person queried) than Friday night services.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

83. Singles retreat

I had, in fact, been on one other singles weekend sponsored by a different Jewish organization, and it wasn't torturous. That was my simple scale for these activities: excruciating, or survivable. I lived, through the mosquito bites and our cabin of 12, where it rained in the shower; the yoga morning, nature walk brunch, and arts and crafts afternoon; the study session with a famous rabbi who suggested we say one hundred blessings a day, making me feel more inadequate than ever; the bonfire, luau, and 50s dance, where a nice guy gave me a chaste kiss on the cheek, after which we emailed for a few weeks, but nothing more; and despite seeing a half dozen people leave in frustration, disgust, or tears before the retreat ended. I remained, surrounded by the emotional monsoons of middle aged men and women forced to act like they were in eighth grade, because it was for their own good. I even got a suntan.

So I figured I could make it through another, and satisfy my curiousity about this synagogue in the process. M. had met his current girlfriend, as well as a number of previous ones, on past retreats. He was sure I'd love it.

I got a little excited. Being M.s' friend was a good icebreaker, and I really could use some time away with nature, trees, and animals that weren't pigeons or rodents. I signed up. Then I got a phone call one afternoon at work saying I was on the waiting list; too many women had registered, of course. I was deeply distressed, to my surprise, and tried to convince myself that it wasn't meant to be. I became angrier and grumpier until one day, a day before the retreat, I got another call.

"You don't know me," she said, "but I hope you can help. I signed up for the weekend and can't go, and they won't refund my money unless I find someone to take my place."

I almost jumped through the phone to kiss her.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

82. Enough

There was also the whole religion business, which I really didn't want to think about. But I figured you could still show up once a week, jump up and down in the drafty stone church, and then go out to dinner and meet new friends without ever involving God. I meant to return the following Friday, but didn't. Nor did I make it the week after. I realized I was avoiding the issue. Maybe I had enough of synagogues for the time being.

Then M. called and insisted I sign up for the singles retreat.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

81. Novelty

The music became faster, and dozens of people got up from their pews, joined hands, and began to dance around the church. It was actually more like shuffling, an underwater hora, since the aisles were way too narrow. Everyone was smiling, even though it looked very awkward. I remained firmly seated.

The music slowed and people returned to the pews for the end of the service, but I was too distracted by the novelty of it all to pay any more attention. This congregation was as strange as the first, but far less creepy. I was intrigued and wary. It seemed the kind of place that could suck you in, cult-like, for the long term, a phenomenon I knew quite well from online groups, bad jobs, and what I perceived as my friend M.'s extreme involvement. I was still recovering from my last bout of community, a bunch of musicians with whom my ex and I had been intertwined for years. Then we broke up and he got half the friends, and I couldn't figure out how to keep the other half without hurting too much. So I stopped trying. Membership in a community, I concluded, required the growth of armor in order to repel a heaping of petty jealousies, competition, and gossip. It took a lot of time and work, with no guarantee that the benefits--friendship, support--would follow. I had just started a new job and was already deeply plugged into the speedy and endlessly fecund world of New York media. This synagogue looked as if it could be an equally interesting adventure, but my time was limited. And I liked my independence.

Monday, May 23, 2005

80. Voice

The music changed and I recognized another voice above the crowd, loud and unseen, deep and booming, a serious male Sound of Religion. Unlike other cantors, this one neither wore a big hat nor stood up front with arms raised in melodramatic gestures. If you craned your neck you could find him way off to the left, the Wizard as voice of God but hidden behind a keyboard instead of a curtain. He rarely sang alone, instead coaxing and sheparding the congregation to the right melodies with a warm, direct style of delivery that reminded me of early music, except when it ceded to dramatic bursts of vibrato. It was beautiful and unnervingly intimate, even over a microphone to a thousand people. It was so different from anything I had ever heard that I really didn't know how to listen, didn't want to, was almost afraid to.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

79. Women

The service was all in Hebrew, except for the announcements of page numbers. I tried to follow along but it was completely unfamiliar, and very fast; even as sixth grade valedictorian, my reading never exceeded the speed of tiptoeing through glass. And it was in Sephardic pronunciation rather than my old-fashioned Ashkenazic; I was an Elizabethan lost in the future. Most of the prayers were sung and people joined in, loudly and remarkably in tune. Clearly these were repeat customers, and they smiled and clapped along with the music as if we were at a religious hoedown. No conversations hummed in the background; everyone was focused on the bima, where a man and woman led the service together. I had never before seen such a thing, and it made me uncomfortable. I had always preferred listening to men's voices rather than women's; I mostly judged ours as too florid or shrill, even when emanating from myself. The woman at the bima was a soprano, and I hoped she would leave. Prayer seemed to require a much weightier sound.

And I--independent, entrepreneur, management, and daughter of same--suddenly understood that I was profoundly unsettled by the idea of a woman as a religious leader and role model. Women could be CEOs and prime ministers, but that was all. Rabbis were men. Taking charge of the spiritual realm was not our job. I hated myself for thinking this, as it ran counter to how I lived my life and to everything I believed and respected, but I thought it just the same, from somewhere in my bones where it had been etched and concealed since childhood.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

78. The late service

So I decided to give it another try. One Friday after work I screwed up my courage and ventured into the cavernous church that hosted the late service, famous among singles for the scene that unfolded afterwards on its wide, crumbling stone steps. If you hung around long enough after "Aleinu" you might find a date, or at least a group with whom to go to a Chinese restaurant. Not quite as nice as a traditional Shabbat dinner, but certainly better than microwaved lasagna in front of the TV. The social pressure of this ritual seemed far more intimidating than the religious stuff; it was bad enough to be ignored by fellow worshippers, but even worse that the rejection might continue after the service ended.

I vowed to run down the steps at the end and not look in either direction. I walked inside and sat in the very back row; everyone up front looked like ants. It was early, and people had just started to trickle in--groups of friends, men and women around my age, some looking frazzled and others relieved as they scoped out the crowd for the best possible seats; some all alone and wary, like myself; and a sprinkling of of grey hair. No kids at all, unlike on Saturday morning. I watched as the trickle slowly changed to a deluge, and after fifteen minutes there was barely a space free in the pews. Even the balcony was full. I realized, with shock and also a kind of joy, that there must be over a thousand people in the church--all of them Jews, and most in their 30s. I had never seen so many of us in one place before.

Friday, May 20, 2005

77. Ambivalent

I found my friend, who was seated right in the middle of the sanctuary where everyone could watch me walk in late, and I settled down next to him and began holding my breath so my skirt wouldn't pop open. I followed along in the prayer book and waited for the proceedings to be fun, because this was supposed to be the fun synagogue. But it wasn't. Everyone certainly looked happy and relaxed, some even wearing jeans in contrast to my drag it out of the back of the closet for when relatives come visit outfit, but I still had no idea what was going on. And it went on for a long, long time. The woman next to us, who wore a brightly-colored tallit and little embroidered cap that reached her ears and looked like what Jackie Kennedy might have owned had she moved to an ashram, was bending, bowing and humming in a style I now recognized as the mark of au courant Manhattan liberal Judaism. The sanctuary was beautiful, but I was so busy sucking in my gut and making sure I stood up and sat down at the right times that I barely noticed. I paid no attention to what the rabbi said. I was too busy counting the minutes until I could leave.

I was sad, afterwards, for reasons I couldn't define. I also wondered why I was even thinking of such arcane and ridiculous matters as what to carry on Shabbat, which I had last pondered when I was 12 and sat behind the guy with no thumbs at Junior Congregation.

Something about this synagogue was nice, although I was still ambivalent about the whole thing. The people at services seemed friendly, and not in a scary way like at the other place.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

76. Carrying

I decided to go one Saturday morning. I was too afraid to attempt a Friday night, when there was supposed to be dancing in the aisles. I planned to arrive at 10:15, since I knew only losers showed up on time. I wore my fanciest and most uncomfortable skirt, which only looked good when I held my breath.

There are 39 types of work you're supposed to avoid on Shabbat and holidays. The broad definition of "work" encompasses, among many other tasks, lighting a fire, carrying, and tearing (which extends to toilet paper, in some extreme interpretations); debating and bemoaning the fate of the world is not included. My mother, even when she started eating BLTs, would not carry a pocketbook on Yom Kippur. But a purse without handles was fine, since "clutching," according to my mother's halacha, was a distinct and permissible category, unlike "swinging from straps that hang in the crook of one's elbow." Remembering this, and lacking a purse, I crammed my keys into a tiny shirt pocket and walked the 20 blocks to M.'s synagogue. I felt naked; it was the first time in about a decade that I had left my house without a wallet or major satchel holding most of my possessions. You never know, in New York, what you might need. I had no idea the Upper West Side had an eruv, an area demarcated by a little wire suspended from trees, traffic lights and telephone poles that snaked around Broadway and into Riverside Park and which announced, with rabbinic certitude, that "outside" was really "inside." Carrying was OK in this shadow zone of home. The eruv was why Orthodox women loved it here; it gave them permission to push multiple children to shul in baby carriages every week rather than stir the soup and wait for their husbands to come back. My ignorance of the eruv's existence allowed me to go to services that first time burdened with nothing except my preconceptions.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

75. Lite

Clearly this wasn't the synagogue for me, which was unexpectedly upsetting. Even though I had already decided that communities were useless, since my prior experiences in them never had happy endings, I was secretly looking forward to fitting in somewhere. This place would have been convenient.

My friend M. wasn't about to let me give up me. Come to my synagogue, he said. It's fun, really. Judaism Heavy and Avant Garde, with all the neo-retro shuckling, wasn't my speed, but his version seemed too Lite. I still only knew the serious kind, where rabbis yelled and scowled and congregants, except those with a lot of money, sat in the back row and felt guilty. I had a difficult time imagining that M.'s synagogue was entirely kosher.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

74. Welcome

Finally we reached the end of the service. The man in the big tallit got up once again, and his fellow swayers looked at him with expectant smiles.

"We have some new people with us tonight," he said, staring straight at me. "Welcome! Will you stand and tell us where you're from?"

I leaned forward in the chair while remaining hunched over, not wanting to reveal any more of myself than necessary. "A few blocks away," I said.

"Welcome," said the man, once again. "Please come back. Any time!"

I acknowledged that he was trying to be nice, but even though our great-grandparents probabaly knew each other from neighboring shtetls, I couldn't imagine they were friends. Mine would have invited his over for chicken soup, but his would have been too busy with their important shoemaker or butcher business to respond. Mine would have forgiven his, but they still would sit on opposite sides of the shul.

Or maybe this was what being a non-Orthodox Jew in Manhattan was about, and Queens never got the memo. Or perhaps I was overreacting, unwilling to admit that my long absence made everything seem foreign. No, that couldn't be.

My friend and I left the building and stood outside, giggling. I thought we might have coffee and discuss our visit to the planet of heartfelt mumblers, since I suspected this might have been a date--I wasn't sure why he wanted to come with me in the first place, not certain his motives were entirely religious. But he looked ready to crawl out of his skin, and quickly said goodbye and ran to the subway. I was left on the street corner contemplating what had changed and where, if anywhere, I was supposed to be.

Monday, May 16, 2005

73. Secret

We both tried to melt into our plastic chairs, especially difficult for my six foot tall guy friend, who looked like he wanted to fold up like a letter and wedge himself between some of the books on the dusty shelves. The swaying continued, and everyone except my friend and I seemed to be sharing a big, whispered secret. No one even glanced in our direction. Granted, we had arrived in the middle of the service, but it still felt like the cool kids in seventh grade were excluding us from their clique; a small, welcoming smile might have been nice. Whenever we had to stand during a prayer, which was often, I was tempted to make a break for the door, feeling like I was knee-deep in poison ivy and looking to jump into the nearest body of water. But I couldn't leave. Religious services were supposed to be uncomfortable, and you had to stay until the end (except on the High Holidays, when you could walk out every five minutes). Everyone continued to ignore us while they rocked back and forth and moved their lips wordlessly, as if communing with relatives on a distant planet.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

72. Clueless

(Continuing the story.)

We walked into the lobby and asked the security guard where the services were. Unbeknownst to us, this synagogue held multiple small services in different rooms, and only occasionally a big, standard issue version in the main sanctuary, which is what we had hoped to attend.

He sent us, instead, to the end of the hallway and a musty, wood-paneled room filled with crammed and towering bookcases where about twenty people in their 30s to 50s were sitting in a half-circle of folding chairs, mumbling and swaying. They seemed weird or possessed, and my first impuse was to run in the opposite direction as fast as possible. I was also surprised that anyone under the age of 85 who didn't already wear a black hat would bother to pray so fervently. My friend and I took deep breaths, looked at each other for strength, and stepped gingerly into a back row. A woman with a distracted but beatific expression on her face walked over and handed us prayer books already opened to the correct page. A man in a huge, tent-like tallit stood up and started singing, and everyone joined in with loud, spirited off-key voices. I had no idea what was going on and was sure my ignorance was flashing on my forehead like a big neon sign: "Clueless Jew! Keep away!"

Thursday, May 12, 2005

71. Names

(Interrupting the story.)

I volunteered to chant Torah in a few weeks at the community retreat, and what did I get to read? Names, lots of tongue-twisting names. Elitzur, son of Sheday-ur. Nachshon, son of Aminandav. It's the census at the beginning of the book of Numbers. At first I thought, how boring, but as I read it over and over tonight, staying up much later than I had planned, I began to feel like I knew these guys. I recognized some of them, in fact, from the section about sacrifices that I chanted on Chanukah. The first 21 verses of Bemidbar will soon be part of my memory and so part of me, and I will always be on a first-name basis with those twelve very important people.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

70. Flavors

Attending a Jewish singles event meant that I would need to set foot in a synagogue, about which I was ambivalent. I wasn't even sure I wanted to date anyone Jewish, considering where it had led me after so many years. But in my sleep I could hear the voices of my ancestors yelling, what, are you out of your mind? So a friend and I decided to go to services one Friday evening, just to measure if we were ready to travel in those circles.

The Upper West Side is dizzy with shuls of every imaginable flavor, stripe, and degree of adherence to the rules--whether they be the real rules, or a set of their own invention. Within a few square miles you can reinvent your religious life anywhere along the spectrum from non-kosher Reform to Madonna-style Kabbalistic to wig-wearing fervently Orthodox. You can be Reconstructionist, Renewal, or Flexidox, which all sounded like brand names one might find at Home Depot. We chose a Conservative synagogue a few blocks from my apartment known for its independence and love of robust intellectual inquiry. They also hosted pretty good swing dances one evening a month.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

69. Guys

I found a big one-bedroom, the most prized of possessions, on the upper edge of the neighborhood. You're moving to Harlem! said my horrified family (who never could have imagined that real estate prices, as well as the density per block of Starbucks and discount drug stores, would quadruple over the next few years, and that I would be considered a savvy pioneer). I had no idea, until after I unpacked, that my new neighborhood was the center of Jewish life in New York. Nor did I care, once I found out.

My friend M., who lived a few blocks away, had migrated from downtown solely because of the Jewish singles factor. He attended with gusto every event I found painful and interminable: the round-robin dinners, the salsa dances; the Date Baits, where you stand up with a microphone for 60 seconds and tell your life story to a roomful of the oposite sex, who then get to vote on whether or not they want you; the museum scavenger hunts, the wine tastings; and others even worse. He joined the singles' committee at his cool new synagogue. He went on many dates and had a blast, and encouraged me to do the same. But he was a guy, an endangered species, and so there were usually ten women to each one of him at these torturous evenings. Guys had it made on the Upper West Side. I was dubious.

Monday, May 09, 2005

68. Central Park

I only knew the neighborhood from visiting friends and by its proximity to Central Park, where I had been just a handful of times. Getting to the park, if you lived in farthest Queens, was an unpleasant ordeal involving hours in traffic on the bridge, or so it seemed when I was eight, and then circling midtown like a lost pigeon for twice as long in order to find a parking spot. (There was the subway, of course, which I used every day when attending high school in The City, but we had an unspoken rule that major entertainment excursions could not involve public transportation. Otherwise we would never have a reason to move the '67 Chevy from its home in the lot behind the deli.) The sight of beautiful, shady green trees in Central Park evokes, to this day, the smell of stale bologna sandwiches mixed with a sensation of burning vinyl on the back of my thighs from a car seat that baked too long in the curbside sun.

My last experience of the park prior to moving across the river was when I got lost en route to meet friends at the Delacorte Theater one Saturday at 5AM. That summer, in order to keep your credentials as a hip, geeky New Yorker, you had to wait on line for hours in the blistering sun to get tickets to see Patrick Stewart in "The Tempest." Too proud and foolish to admit I didn't really know where the Delacorte Theater was, I entered the park from the east side instead of the west and wandered around in the dark for an hour, sure I would become a headline in the Post: "Stupidest woman in New York killed before dawn." A jogger who was probably more afraid of me, panicked and covered in dew, than I of him, led me the across the Ramble to the far shore, where the line was already a hundred deep. We wilted on the steaming concrete path until 1PM and were among the last to get tickets; if we hadn't, my headline fantasy would have been a better alternative to the wrath of my friends.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

67. 1998

In 1998 I had been in Manahttan for almost a year, freed from Queens and an expired relationship. Not even the best Indian restaurants in the city or my two-bedroom apartment with a sunken living room and skyline view was incentive to remain in exile across the East River. Twenty minutes from the mainland might as well have been Utah, as far as my friends were concerned, and my building, and person, seemed to have become a featured destination on the itineraries of a few burglars and otherwise evil people. Two robberies didn't convince me to leave, but the guy who pushed himself from behind into the lobby and then into me (aside from terror, no harm done), which I remember from the strange vantage point of the ceiling, having had a sort of fear-induced outer-body experience, finally convinced me to get as far from Jackson Heights as possible.

That was to the Upper West Side, a full two hours away by subway on days with smoke conditions or sick passengers.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

66. Refiner's fire

Services this morning felt like I had been away for a lifetime, even though just two weeks had passed since the second day of Passover. On that morning, as on the one before, I chanted the the same aliyah that was my very first, Numbers 28: 16-26. (We also read it on the intermediate days minus verses 16-18, which say "this is the first day of Passover." OK to include this on day 2 but not 3-8, go figure.).

On the first day of Passover chanting felt like an insistent affirmation, restless and happy as a child stomping her feet in the sand. Singing would make everything OK. I was also immersed in the start of the holiday, up late at a seder the night before and wondering how I would stay awake for the longer one to follow. Anticipation trumped worry.

The second day was different. I knew that the next time I came to services I would either be free from fear, able to breathe again, or about to begin a journey through the most narrow of places. On the second day I chanted loudly and defiantly; no matter what stumbling blocks You choose to put before me, You can't take away my strength when I'm up here.

Knowing I'm fine is like the start of something new, even though nothing has really begun or ended. My weeks of worry were like the refiner's fire. My head was filled with the bass aria from Handel's "Messiah" in those days before the surgery, as well as the voice of the cantor singing Hallel:

Ana Adonai, hoshiah nah
Deliver us, Lord, we implore You

I don't yet know what's new. I hope I can figure it out.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

65. Under the gazebo roof

I got up early that morning and went running through the camp, first down a long gravel path surrounded by meandering forest and then out onto the main road, where cars whizzed by every few minutes and you might never know that just a few hundred yards away people were praying, singing, renewing themselves. I practiced my portion as I ran in order to warm up my voice and get in the habit of breathing, which I can forget when nervous. I wondered if nearby bears were confused at the sounds of Hebrew coming through their trees. (I've continued the habit; I always make sure to walk to services when I'm leading in order to give my lungs a little exercise, and on the morning of Rosh Hashonah I worked out on my rowing machine. I couldn't do this on Yom Kippur because I had a fever, but that's another story, which I will get to one of these days.)

We davened Shacharit, the morning prayers, under the gazebo roof, with the wide sky and sun-shimmering lake beckoning behind the small Ark. Then, for the Torah service, we moved the whole proceedings a few yards to a little pavilion on the lawn. The scroll was opened atop a small table and, with the wind blowing strands of hair in my eyes, I chanted my aliyot. Like before, I was suspended in time. Everything around me, the song of the birds, the bright green blanket of grass under my feet, a handful of curious kids to the left and right craning their necks to get a glimpse, receded into the distance, as if I was standing at the mouth of a cave and they were suddenly deep inside. There was nothing in the universe except myself, the scroll, and its words, each one full and rich as if it contained an entire dialogue with the writer.

Leter, as we were putting everything away, the rabbi turned to me and said, "You should do that more often!" After my ego returned to earth, I realized that I had to take up his challenge.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

64. Shabbaton

Many Jews, especially those from New York, become nervous around the word "retreat," which we all grew up thinking was reserved for the use of non-Jews. Aside from the fact that New Yorkers generally prefer to charge rather than retreat, the word conjures up images of nuns holding rosary beads while tiptoeing through green fields, or blonde people who play field hockey and don't own any black clothing reciting Bible verses while eating white bread with mayo. At least that's what I used to think. I was certain, until a few years ago, that participating in anything so titled would be a shonda.

We go on "Shabbatons" instead, big Shabbats, weekends of study, prayer and reflection where the world doesn't intrude and we can truly rest. In other words, retreats. Most kids who grew up steeped in Jewish culture, unlike myself, have wonderful memories of Shabbatons around the campfire in bucolic settings. My synagogue chooses not to play any semantic games, and calls the experiences exactly what they are. We have community retreats, singles retreats, and teen and mediation retreats, all terrific. When I first joined, however, the idea of going on a retreat seemed strange and subversive. I half expected all my friends to start wandering around the lake while praying to themselves.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

63. The retreat center

Like many synagogues in the northeast, we have retreats at the Block and Hexter Vacation Center in Poyntelle, PA, aka the Poconos. Block and Hexter is usually a resort for senior citizens, as well as a place you can rent and bring your family of 300 for a weekend bar mitzvah. The staff at Block and Hexter loves my synagogue because we are from neither of these groups. There's a beautiful lake surrounded by muddy, labyrinthine woods, and a long line of noisy ducks who parade across the grounds twice a day to the kitchen and claim what the rest of us didn't eat for lunch. When it's nice out, we carry the Torah scroll over to a large gazebo near the shuffleboard court and have services in the mountain air.

In case you're bored by natural beauty, two modern sculptures lean into the wide expanse of lawn that fronts the lake. One, a big grey box on its side, seems to represent Block, and I always thought of its companion marble tower, a reddish geometric ziggurat which looks to be modeled after Babel, as Hexter. Then one day while waiting for a paddleboat to become available, I noticed a small stone bust labeled "Hexter"-- his disembodied head--swathed in lichen and viney weeds and planted squarely on a tree stump just a few feet from the edge of the lake. Perhaps he liked to sit on the grass and look out at the water. I hope the story of the head is no more complicated than that.

Monday, May 02, 2005

62. Again

(Resuming the story. This continues after "59. The day arrived.")

"You won't really believe you can chant until you do it a second time," said S. after our triumphant debut.

I couldn't wait. A few of us decided to go to the community retreat at the beginning of June and, with some trepidation, called the cantor ourselves to see if he needed more readers. This felt like an act of enormous chutzpah; it would have been less intimidating to request an audience with a head of state. But he had plenty of aliyot available, and I got two of them. Learning to chant it this time around was like hanging out with an acquaintance whom I knew would soon be a best friend; we felt uncannily comfortable together.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

61. Song of the Sea

The Song of the Sea (Exodus 17: 1-21) was read Saturday morning at seventh day Passover services:

"...Miriam chanted to them:
Sing to God, for He has triumphed, yes, triumphed,
the horse and its charioteer
He flung into the sea!"

This is what God, and a wonderful surgeon, did for me on Wednesday. I wasn't able to hear Miriam's song in person this year, but its exultant, hypnotic tune was with me just the same. In a few weeks, when my stomach stops hurting, I'll be able to sing with gratitude just like she did. In the interim I will enjoy my Tylenol with codeine and wonder when I'll understand what I'm supposed to learn from this gift of being released from fear and of being certain, for just one day, that I am not yet erased from the Book of Life. I feel like I was given a glimpse of forbidden knoweldge; I need to guard that apple very carefully. I'll remember waking up every hour on the hour on Wednesday in a morphine haze, marking the passage of the night by the big clock on the TV screen above my bed and thinking: I love insomnia! I'm so happy that I can't sleep and there's more time until dawn, because that I means I have another hour ahead in which to give thanks.