Thursday, June 30, 2005

109. Drowning

I was afraid to talk about it, the baffling and exhilarating moment, the something that happened, for weeks and months afterwards. It was like falling into deep, clandestine love at first sight. During downtime at work, and deep into the night at home, I typed "Judaism" into search engines and ingested thousands of words. When the explanations and commentary became too dense, I kept the moment close by going back and re-reading old stuff. All I wanted to do, for a very long time, was drown in Jewish information.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

108. Go

We got to the Torah service, and the two rabbis at the bima began to discuss the portion of the week--a lively debate with each other, right in front of the rest of us. It was Lech Lecha: "Go, you go!" or maybe "Go, go to yourself." God tells Abraham to leave home and travel to a new place, and the story begins. It hit me after a few minutes: this was about me. My journey had just started, and I had no idea where it might lead. I was embarrassed, even in my heightened state of amazement, to describe my discovery with the kind of overused phrase that begins badly written memoirs. I wouldn't dare utter it. But it was true.

Monday, June 27, 2005

107. Notes

The church was crowded, hundreds of people even at this hour of the morning, and I didn't see any of my new friends from the retreat. I sat in M.'s usual spot and tried to follow along. For three hours I listened as the congregation sang melodies that were, with few exceptions, completely unfamiliar, and quite complicated--and not a sheet of music in sight. I was impressed and jealous; it had been years since I tried to make any kind of sound without first staring at a bunch of notes. Then again, maybe I'd know this stuff, too, if not for that two-decade gap in synagogue attendance. Who knows. If not for the gap, I might also be a housewife in Monsey with 15 kids. I was glad to have to learn the music.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

106. Bus

I had never before been so enthusiastic about waking up early on a Saturday. Wearing a skirt, this time, in which I could breathe, I began to walk the twenty blocks to the church and marveled at the strange sounds of a quiet, marginally awake city. I passed a deli, and remembered that services were three hours long and I'd forgotten to eat breakfast. I hesitated. I had spent the past twenty or so years ignoring all the requirements of Shabbat, aside from those moments a few weeks ago when I drowned in guilt about what to carry. I knew I'd have to think about this stuff again, particularly the rule about not spending money, if I wanted to be part of a Jewish community. I couldn't imagine how I would reconcile my ambivalence with my desire.

But making it through an entire service without fainting from hunger had to be my first priority. I decided to table the larger internal debate, and went into the deli and slapped a dollar on the counter. Then I looked at my watch and realized I was late, and grabbed my buttered roll and ran back out the door. Suddenly a bus pulled up to the curb. OK, I reasoned, it must be here for a reason. God wouldn't tempt me with illegal transportation if I wasn't supposed to use it. I hopped on.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

105b. Something happened

Later that week I spoke to my friend M.

"So?" he asked.

"No, I didn't meet a I guy," I said, "but it was lots of fun. I really liked everyone. Something happened, something nice. Nothing in particular. I just had a great time." I didn't know how to go into any more detail. That's how I would characterize the experience to my friends, the few whom I knew wouldn't laugh at my newfound religious zeal, for months afterwards: something happened.

I told M. that I planned to go to services that Saturday. He was happy, and surprised, but had other plans. So I went by myself.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

105a. Giddy

On Sunday afternoon we were all packed and waiting for the bus to arrive, standing around in knots of new friends and making plans to see each other again at services. The rabbi was there, too, moving from group to group as everyone tried to corner him and say goodbye. Having no idea how to talk to rabbis, I hadn't said a word to him all weekend. But he certainly seemed like an authentic and normal person, unlike the other rabbis I had known, so I took a deep breath, gulped, and walked over and extended my hand.

"Thank you," I stammered. "Thank you so much. This was great. Really, really great." I immediately wanted to swallow my words, which didn't even begin to explain how I suspected that my life had just changed, and that it was partly his fault. I sounded giddy. But I couldn't think of anything else to say.

"You're welcome," he answered, and smiled, just like when he played the drums on Friday evening.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

104. Whoosh

Later that afternoon I walked over to a clearing behind the cabin and contemplated the trapeze-like device touted when we first arrived at camp. It looked terrifying. You climbed way, way up a wooden ladder to a little platform about thirty feet high. You were strapped into a harness that looked just like the one from your childhood swing set. Then a large man attached one end of a big hook to your harness, and the other to a ridiculously thin wire that stretched across the wide expanse of ground to a tall pole many yards away. Before you could come to your senses, the large man shoved you off the platform and you whooshed back and forth between the two poles for an eternity. It was supposed to be fun.

Normally I'd laugh at such a scenario, but my mind was still much further aloft than where this thing would take me. The world was new and I was invincible. I climbed up the pole, strapped myself in, and went sailing through the air, screaming at the top of my lungs.

Monday, June 20, 2005

103. Doorway

I've since learned that many people have problems with the second paragraph of the Shema, which is often omitted at Reform synagogues. I read it even though it sometimes makes no sense, depending upon my current levels of contentment, guilt, or interpretive generosity. I read it because it takes me back to that morning in the cabin. A woman from the kitchen staff, a European college student here for the summer, leans into the doorway and watches us pray. Does she think we're nuts? Or can she sense how hard we're trying to decipher the words, and is she jealous, wanting to be part of the quest? I believe she is. I watch her watching me as I whisper to myself, and am proud to be standing among people who don't know the answers.

The second paragraph of the Shema also makes me think of this line from Hallel, the psalms that are sung on holidays:

"You severely chastened me, but You did not doom me to death."

Even if we fail miserably and the heavens close and the rain dries up, there will always be a second chance.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

102. Rain in autumn and rain in spring

I took a sudden dislike to this prayer. I had no interest in agriculture, and the idea of a vengeful God was one reason I didn't set foot in a synagogue for twenty years. So I sat on my folding chair as everyone mumbled, and I wondered how to restore the helium to my heart.

I forced myself to read the paragraph a few more times, and finally noticed an image that made sense. It was now autumn, October, and today was sunny--but it might rain tomorrow. And it would certainly rain in the spring. Rain screwed up the subways, and sun meant air conditioning and a ridiculous bill. I had little patience for either. And so, in order to remain focused on the usual stresses that consumed my day, I paid little attention to the weather. The same held true for my perception of trees, food on the table, and being born healthy and free in the twentieth century. I had too much on my mind to give extra thought to these extraordinary strokes of luck. Maybe the prayer was saying that these gifts might as well disappear if I continued to ignore them. Not that God would take them away, but that my life would be flat and empty in absence of an awareness of how marvelous they really were.

Maybe I was stretching things, but this idea made it possible for me to finish reading the Shema.

Friday, June 17, 2005

101. Sunday

(Continuing the story.)

We had dinner, made havdalah outside under the moonlight, and then there was a dance. I tried to mingle, meet people, look at guys, but was too distracted by thoughts of my strange and wonderful moment to do little more than smile and stare.

I woke up an hour early for services the next morning. The anticipation was unbearable; I wanted more. I hadn't been to a Sunday morning service since I was 12, but it didn't seem foreign. I listened once again for all the thanks and praise. And then we reached the Shema, which included these lines:

"If you will earnestly heed the mitzvot I give you this day...then I will favor your land with rain in the proper season--rain in autumn and rain in spring--and you will have an ample harvest of grain and wine and oil. I will assure abundance in your fields for your cattle. You will eat to contentment. Take care lest you be tempted to forsake God... He will close the heavens and hold back the rain. You will soon disappear from the good land which the Lord is giving you."

Thursday, June 16, 2005

100. Shavout, part 4

We began the Torah service, and the rabbi motioned for me to come to the bima and be the second gabbai. There are always, in addition to the lucky recipient of the blessing, three people at the bima: a reader, and two gabbaim. The gabbai follows along from a printed book and corrects mistakes the reader might make when chanting from the scroll, which is bereft of all useful hints like vowels, notes, or punctuation. It's usually a rabbi's job, but the two present this morning were both chanting, leaving one spot empty. And since my eyes were still open and I seemed able to stand, I became a likely candidate.

My synagogue takes very seriously the injunction to read the Torah without any errors. This terrified me at first, until I realized that the gabbaim were calm and kind, and just like a life jacket; there would always be a whispered prompt, if ever I began to drown. I was a gabbai once before, during the High Holy Days. Not even the Red Sea appearing and parting right there in the sanctuary would have made me look up from the book. I was sure all Jewish people everywhere would know if I missed a mistake, and be disappointed.

The rabbi who read first was operating on less sleep than us all, and he did stumble just a little on the trope. The other rabbi, much to my relief, jumped in each time even before I noticed anything was wrong. So I stood there in silence for a few minutes following every letter with my fingertip as he sang about thunder, lightning, and the laws we were now bound to follow.

He finished, and it was my turn to read. We switched places at the bima.

"Would you like to say the blessing?" he asked.

It wasn't a big deal; I've had aliyot before. But I started to shake. This new Torah--it really was for me. He asked my Hebrew name and I couldn't remember, and began to stammer. I was verklempt. The rabbi smiled. I finally took a deep breath and manged to form the words, and started to chant. The melody left me a few times, but both rabbis were there to push me back on the path.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

99. Shavout, part 3

We ended at about 5AM with the study of a beautiful midrash. All people, and every single thing in the world, wrote 19th century hasidic Rabbi Zadok HaKohen of Lublin, are letters in a book that God has written. The Torah is God's commentary on those letters. And (according to many other interpretations) its meaning changes from year to year, because we change. The words--us--and the commentary--the Torah--are always in partnership, dancing and wrestling with one another. All night long I remembered my own moment of revelation and gratitude, and wondered what this year's Torah would bring. And prayed that I would understand its message.

At 5:30 we moved upstairs to the sanctuary for services. We went outside for a few minutes; the sun had just risen, and it was hard to imagine that there had been night at all. Consider, said the rabbi, how the Israelites must have felt just as they were about to receive the Torah. Maybe it was a little like we did right now, brains overflowing, numb and shaking from exhaustion. Only about 20 of us remained, and we moved close together and began to sing with the kind of raw energy that's left after all other strength is gone.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

98. Shavout, part 2

There's a kind of exhaustion, after your second and third winds have long passed, where you actually feel the neurons in your brain firing and missing one another. You wonder how much longer long you'll be able to form complete sentences before a force like a big hand descending from the sky crushes you flat and doesn't let you move, no matter how hard you try. As long as the cause of your exhaustion is enjoyable, and you're in the company of people who'll catch you if you fall, this can be a intriguing sort of altered state. You continue to function even as your thought processes are broken into little bits and snatched up by the big hand, and you're amazed at how strong you really are.

And I really was amazed. I've pulled my share of all-nighters, but none that involved hours of thinking about God and revelation. I hadn't planned to stay at my synagogue for the entire tikkun leil Shavuot, the traditional marathon of learning, but at about 2AM I understood that I couldn't leave, that it was necessary at this moment in my life to hear everything. In a candlelit room strewn with rose petals, we studied with eight different rabbis and teachers, and with each other in chevrutas, study partnerships, until we ran out of energy and could only listen.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

97. Shavuot, part 1

(Interrupting the story, believe it or not.)

Tonight begins the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. Compared to its peers--Passover and Sukkot, the other two pilgrimage holidays, when Jews traveled to the Temple with their offerings--Shavuot gets much less press. It has no exciting food traditions, no meals under the stars or chocolate covered macaroons. (Or those wonderful little fruity sugar crescents.) Some people eat dairy and cheesecake to remind us that Israel is "a land of milk and honey," but I think it's really because every Jewish holiday has to have great dessert. Shavuot, as I learned not long ago, is really about the culmination of the seven weeks following Passover, which we count day by day. We've been in the desert, struggling, changing, learning. And then we receive an amazing gift, and have to figure out what to do with it. We stay up all night studying in preparation for the big event. The Israelites, so the story goes, fell asleep when they tried; maybe we'll learn something they missed.

I volunteered to chant Torah on Monday morning at sunrise. (But I think I'll go home first and get a few hours of sleep, since I have no desire to collapse in the service of this particular mitzvah.) As I sing while the night disappears, I will trace my own route from the dark place at the beginning of Passover back to a wide, bright expanse of wonder and questions, and be grateful for every step in the sand along the way.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

96. In between

I knew no one who thought about God in this way. In fact, I had no idea what anyone thought about God; I didn't ask. I took great pains to avoid the issue. I never studied philosophy or theology, took part in 3AM discussions at college over pizza and beer about the meaning of life, or wondered why bad things happened to good people. They just did, whether I liked it or not. I got angry, momentarily; so this is what everyone meant, maybe even the Pope. Why didn't anyone tell me? Why didn't they do a better job of explaining? It would have been nice to know.

Years later I would learn that the Zohar, a Jewish mystical text, says that wherever God finds a minyan--a quorum, the ten people needed in order to have a prayer service-- God's presence is felt. "God appears most palpably in the spaces in between."* So it made sense that I would encounter these ideas in the company of others, and when I finally began to feel like I belonged among those others. Maybe God was standing next to us during the Amidah that morning--hey, pay attention. I'm here. I've always been here.

*From a d'var Torah by Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Friday, June 10, 2005

95. Flashlight

But the more I tried not to think about it, the more it followed me around. Like a flashlight over my shoulder, the new idea illuminated everywhere I walked, everything I did. I tried to concentrate on meeting people but could only smile and marvel at the greener grass and brighter sky, as if a big window between me and the world had been washed for the first time in years.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

94. Practical

Beyond that wonderful, safe, joyous feeling, my thoughts made little sense to myself, which was alarming. Everyone was still standing, praying the silent Amidah as the sun edged across the cabin floor. So I took a deep breath and continued to read, unable to articulate what happened yet wanting to jump up and down and scream about it to anyone who would listen.

We had lunch and then a study session about Judaism's approach to being single in a coupled world. Maybe, suggested the rabbi, there should be ceremonies for divorce as well as marriage, to mark a transition that was equally important in life. I had no idea my religion ever thought about such things. It was a surprise to me, in fact, that my religion was concerned with anything practical, aside from raising money.

I said not a word about my strange little moment of awareness, pushing it away for later contemplation. Or maybe not, if I decided my thoughts were irrational. I really wasn't sure. This was also a singles weekend, and I wanted my money's worth. Expounding upon my new understanding of God to a complete stranger didn't seem like the best kind of first impression.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

93. Vat of goodness

I once dated someone who was manic; he said things like this. I felt sane, but that could very well mean I was crazy.

I never considered myself a cynic. I was a realist, looking out for myself because no one else would, proud to be a guarded, wary New Yorker. But now I understood that everyone, really, was my side, because I lived on a benevolent planet that had a vested interest in my continued existence. We needed each other, the universe and I, God and I, and so I wasn't alone, and would never be. It felt like falling in love--literally, as if someone had dropped me without warning into a big vat of goodness.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

92. Mirror

The Kabbalists believed that the structure of the spiritual universe mirrored that of the human body, together completing the fabric of existence. (Maybe that's why so much of the earth is ocean: to reflect the heavens and allow us to see the rest of ourselves.) I didn't know about this philosophy on that day in October. My main thought, after I realized I really did believe in God, was that I was going crazy.

Friday, June 03, 2005

91. A leaf from a tree

I had never wanted to thank so much as in that moment. It was frightening, this joyful, painful need; it didn't feel like myself. One minute I was here and then higher, dizzy, drinking in something very good, just like when I sung the B Minor Mass.

I didn't understand math when I was a kid. Then I got to high school, where math had shapes and concepts, all explained by my favorite teacher Mr. A., who divided the ideas into parts and then put them back together in a way even more exciting than literature. One day he plotted points on graph and then, just before the bell rang, connected them to form a sine curve. I recognized the shape; it was the body of a wave, the top of a mountain range, a flag in the wind. It was an equation, and yet also a picture of real things, as much a portrait as if I had painted it. They were linked, the equation and the sea, partners in the language of what made up the world. One without the other was only part of the story. I was dumbfounded by this idea, and sat staring at the blackboard even after the bell rang and everyone left for the next class.

And this was the same. My thanks were one thing, and all I was grateful for another, and they were linked. You could even argue that they were the same, two halves of a larger whole. You might choose to sing praises in an empty room, or say "you're welcome" to an anonymous crowd, but why bother? Each action needed the other in order to make sense. And I realized this was why people, sane people, people like me, could need and want to pray, and then really mean it--because they believed, they knew, that if you threw a bunch of thanks out to the universe, it had to be caught. It had to complete something else. And the receiving place, whatever my gratitude was sticking to--people, the wind--that was God.

I thought these thoughts quickly, in the time that a leaf could blow off a tree, but everything was different afterwards.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

90. Thanks

We said the standing prayer once again. Now I remembered why services were so long. Didn't we mean it the first time around? I tried to stumble through the Hebrew, but quickly gave up and switched to English instead. I had never seen this translation; it was modern, without the thees and thous, and much more interesting. I read:

We thank You and praise You morning, noon and night for Your miracles which daily attend us and for Your wondrous kindnesses.

I turned the page, and it said:

For all these blessings we shall ever praise and exalt You.

And more lines like this. There were also parts about asking, pleading--give me life, bring peace--lines that had always bothered me, because I knew God was not a wizard. There would continue to be war, and we would die one day. So I chose to ignore those lines and, in the process, bypassed the thanking and praising ones as well. But now they jumped out at me, because all of a sudden I was bursting with thanks: for the music, the crickets, the heavy branches with dark green leaves stretching over the sunroof. For the guy I might meet this weekend, or even not. For being away from the city and forgetting my crappy week and, momentarily, that I was supposed to be cool. For new experiences that made me very nervous, and even for the idea of thankfulness in the first place.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

89. Aliyah

I didn't know what was going on, even though I had been though this once a year every year at the High Holidays. There was the standing prayer, the Amidah, which we called the Shemonah Esrei back in Hebrew school. Then the Torah reading, where everyone would get an aliyah--an honor, an ascent. The last time I thought about this word was as a kid watching families go up to the Ark during Rosh Hashonah services. My mother explained that they had given money to the synagogue, and I wondered if they had to move to Israel now, as well--isn't that what "make aliyah" meant? I decided I never wanted an aliyah, because I liked living in New York. (I wisely kept the concern to myself on this particular morning.)

The rabbi invited all those on the retreat for the first time to come up and recite the blessing. As a not very good Jew for a very long time, I wondered if my presence would somehow diminish the validity of the moment. But almost everyone was walking to the front, so I joined them. A woman put the edge of her tallit around my shoulder; I had never touched one before, even though I watched my father, until I was ten, wrap it around himself like a cape every morning. We read from a card and then stood behind a man who chanted from the open scroll, which I was afraid to come near for fear of inadvertently tampering with its holiness. Then we said another blessing, and I understood that the words in the scroll had been read on my behalf, to commemorate my appearance in this place.