Sunday, July 31, 2005

130. Morning in my living room

(Back to the story.)

The CDs and I developed an intimate relationship over the next ten weeks. I was reminded of "Morning in America," that old Reagan campaign slogan, because it was always morning in my living room. From a praying point of view, the day never ended. Shaharit, the morning service, entertained my cats at midnight, after all my work was done; at 3pm, when I took a coffee break; at 5:30am, when I got up to finish a rush project and decided it was more important to sing; and at any second I could steal in between. Listen, repeat, press rewind. While everyone else last summer sang along to André 3000 as they worked, I was probably the only person in New York, and maybe the world, bopping to Yom Kippur prayers.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

129. Offering

Last night at services the rabbi talked about Matot, this week's parasha. There is a war. It ends, and the Israelites give part of their spoils, the gold captured from their enemies, as an offering to God. Our own lives, said the rabbi, are not spent in war, thank goodness, but we're still always fighting--at work, with loved ones, with society. So our rest and prayer on Shabbat becomes a post-battle offering to God, our request for another chance to do better, be kinder, more sensitive to the needs of the other. As she spoke, I thought about what I had written here yesterday, and a design project I'm working on for Rabbis for Human Rights. It's a booklet of Biblical and rabbinic sources on the topic of torture, and the first text included is from Genesis 1:26: "Let us make the human being in our image ["tzelem Elohim," in the image of God], after our likeness." "Torture," concludes the author of the booklet, "shatters and defiles God's image." And defiles all people, as well, since we are created in God's image. The same can be said about any pursuit--racism, war--that demonstrates a lack of respect for "tzelem Elohim," the force, the spark, the source of life in us all. No matter if you consider that force to be divine, or just simply what makes us human; dishonoring one person will ultimately hurt everyone. But there are second chances. We can make an offering and do better.

I learned to be good when I was growing up, but I never knew why. We gave to chairty--as a teenager, I would go to my father's apartment every Sunday and write out checks, $5 to Chinese orphans, $10 to feed the poor in Jerusalem--but lacked the language or context for what I was doing. I didn't understand how important it was. How different might I be today, if I had grown up with a greater awareness that my life wasn't just about me, me, me? If I had been more cognizant of whom I might have defiled, knowingly or not? If I had learned that acting this way was a part of being Jewish, and if I had loved being Jewish? But now I'm trying to catch up, and make my offering.

Friday, July 29, 2005

128. Completeness

(Interrupting myself again--I'll finish the story one of these weeks!)

I've been learning a really long section to chant on Aug. 20. (Long for me, a whole column in the scroll; it takes seven minutes to sing. But for those who chant the entire k'ria--each week's portion in its entirety rather than a third per year, as in most Conservative and Reform synagogues--a column is nothing. Many Orthodox shuls have one person, a man who mastered this skill at his Bar Mitzvah, read the whole thing each week, i.e. roughly 20 times longer than what I will read, give or take a few columns. He sings very quickly, so that the congregation can get home in time for lunch.)

One of the lines in my portion is also read at the evening service of Simchat Torah as the scrolls are removed from the Ark in preparation for hakafot, the joyous, raucous dance of people and Torahs around the synagogue. In parashat Va'ethannan, Deut. 4:35, Moses entreats the Israelites to remember and observe the commandments, because

"It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is God; there is none beside Him."

These words, read just as the Ark opens, at first left me cold. In the passive voice--"it has been clearly demonstrated"--they seemed legalistic and impersonal, a formulaic proof to be committed to dry, fuzzy memory. But last year the rabbi offered a different interpretation. "There is none beside God," he said, means there is nothing but God--all is God. This is certainly not an uncommon idea in Jewish prayer. The Shema, which we recite daily, states "The Lord is One" and therefore One--wholeness, completeness, all of creation--is God. But I had never before heard this concept phrased in the rabbi's particular choice of words. "All is God" sounded like more than one, pantheistic, radical, even heretical, and completely at odds with the traditional image of a paternal overseer in the sky. It was also how I believed, and had only recently figured out how to admit. And hearing acknowledgment that others understood as I did, too, stopped me in my tracks--literally; I froze at the back of the sanctuary as everyone else drew towards the Ark in anticipation--and made me want hold those scrolls close to my heart and dance all night long, which I did.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

127. Parrot

I stopped the CD after the first few lines and sang back exactly what he sang, and then pressed rewind and did it again. And again and again. I went through all the tracks on the CD this way, surveying and parroting the beginning of each prayer of Shaharit, the morning service. Then I put on the next CD, the second morning of the holiday. This time the chazzan was a woman, and she sounded much like myself. Since we shared the same, higher register, I found it easier to follow her voice than the cantor's, although the key hadn't changed--and was just a little too high. I sang along with the first few lines of each track on this disc as well, the same exact prayers as on the other one.

Then I popped in the third CD, Yom Kippur morning, which featured the cantor and a handful of rabbis. I began to listen, but it was just too weird to hear "Al chet," the breast-beating litany of the year's sins, in the middle of July. I decided to revisit this section in a week or two.

I looked at the clock. Three hours had passed as if in a blink.

Monday, July 25, 2005

126. Emulation


I now possessed, in theory, everything--machzor, CDs, three months of practice time before the holidays-- required to learn how to be a chazzanit, except for the small matters of self-confidence and firm belief that my life hadn't turned into some sort of surreal, waking dream. I went home, popped the first disc in the CD player, and was transported to the previous Rosh Hashonah and a warm, deep, shiver-inducing voice inviting us to wake up and usher in the new year. That I was about to attempt to emulate the sounds of the cantor seemed an act of enormous chutzpah.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

125. Uncanny

(I've been busy writing...for a class, which is wonderful, has a few more weeks to go, and is using up a critical mass of my writing-related brain cells. I'll be back here to resume my story on a more regular basis after the class ends.)

Another observation about the unique talents of F. the gabbai. No coordinating tie this week--the Torah portion was Pinchas, who at the end of last week's reading slew an Israelite who consorted with a Midianite. The story continues with other sad and serious themes. Perhaps F. could have worn a tie decorated with yearling lambs, part of the catalogue of sacrifies listed at the end of the parasha, but I'm glad he did not.

When the first person to receive an honor went up the to the bima and, as is the custom, whispered his Hebrew name to the rabbi so he could be officially announced, the rabbi turned to all of us and said, "F. has once again done a wonderful job of finding someone for the first aliyah." (Things are casual in the summer--honorees are chosen by F. on the fly, a mix of visitors and old stalwarts.) F. has an uncanny sense for finding people who appreciate, and need, the aliyah--he once chose a woman who turned out to be a Holocaust survivor attending services for the first time in 40 years--but I wondered why the rabbi decided to comment. The guy at the bima looked completely unfamiliar, and pretty average. Maybe he was someone famous that I didn't recognize.

Then the rabbi announced the man's Hebrew name.

"Pinchas!" he said.

Yes, on the occasion of parashat Pinchas, F. picked, out of a crowd of a few hundred people he neither knew nor quizzed beforehand, someone whose Hebrew name was Pinchas.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

124. Linear

This afternoon I signed up to chant a few more verses in addition to the very long section I'm doing in a few weeks. I momentarily wondered if I was nuts, since I'm really busy with work. Then I thought about how chanting provides a kind of balance in my life and, in fact, helps keep me sane.

Graphic design, which I love but which occupies far too many hours, is mostly a hit or miss proposition. You manipulate type and images in a layout until they strike some note of being "right." It is, despite what teachers and bosses might tell you, a completely subjective endeavor. There's no correct answer, except what your eye and gut tells you, and what the client wants.

Chanting Torah is in many ways the complete opposite of this process, one of the reasons why I like it so much. It's a linear kind of learning. You repeat the words and melody over and over again until you know them, study their meaning, and exercise creative leeway when adding expression to your singing. But nothing is ambiguous about the pronunciation or trop, which is either right or wrong. And when it's right, it's one of the most satisfying feelings I've ever known. It's right in a way that has been right for 5,000 years, and which has not and will not change based on whim, economy, or fashion. The same can't be said for the meaning of those words--which is why they'll be around, and sung by many more generations of tired graphic designers, for at least another few thousand years.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

123. Donkeys

Interrupting myself, once again, to note that F. did indeed wear a tie with donkeys on it this past Shabbat. Everybody was quite impressed. Where does one obtain such a thing, you might wonder (as I did)? Apparently someone in the congregation who works for the Democrats gave it to him as a gift.

Monday, July 18, 2005

122. Adrift

Adrift in a sea of framed ketubas, ceramic dreidels, and glass cases filled with ornate silver religious accoutrements whose function I barely recognized, I squeezed through layers of shoppers to reach a section of shelves loaded with prayer books. There were dozens, all in Hebrew, packed tighter than a shul on Yom Kippur. And I suddenly realized I didn't even know the name of the book I was asking for. I took a deep breath and walked over to a black-suited gentleman.

"I'm looking for a machzor," I stammered, "the one I used last year." I told him the name of my synagogue. "I think the cover is, um, blue." I was certain his blank stare masked derisive astonishment. Doesn't even know what it's called! he must be thinking. What kind of Jew is that!

Instead, he nodded enthusiastically. "No, it's gray. Wait a minute." Before I could respond, he ran behind the counter and down a hidden staircase. In a minute, just long enough for me to wonder if I would ever have the need to buy an $800 kiddush cup, he re-emerged and handed me the book.

"How did you know?" I asked.

"Oh, we know these things," he answered, smiling.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

121. The store

My first task was to purchase a machzor of my very own. Maybe seeing the words on the page would make the task seem a little less daunting. I left the synagogue office and, clutching my CDs, went immediately to the Judaica store a few blocks away.

It's a tiny place, crowded with ceiling-high shelves of books from every corner of every angle of the spectrum of Jewish belief and observance. Its proprietors are the old-fashioned kind of Brooklyn Orthodox, very far from Modern. Men with wiry beards and black suits pace the narrow aisles as tired women in sheitels and teenage girls dressed in fashionable, long-sleeved t-shirts and ankle-length skirts guard the counter, summoning a husband or uncle up front with a strident "Shloime! Moishy! Customer!" whenever a civilian needs assistance. Trying to find a particular book is an interesting but generally futile exercise. None of the shelves are labeled and they comprise an order I've never been able to discern, probably mirroring the structure of the Talmud or some obscure but monumental work of Jewish mysticism.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

120. Freaking out

I held the three CDs in my hands and started to freak out. This was an awful lot of music and, being a note snob (one of the reasons why I like to chant Torah--it's cool following those little symbols), I didn't have much experience learning by ear. My task was Shaharit, the first half of which was identical to Shabbat. The rest of the service was a mixture of prayers unique to the High Holidays, which I knew from five years in the choir, and more Shabbat prayers with completely different tunes. I would be alternating some lines or stanzas with the rabbi, but the bulk of the singing would be my job--unlike the rest of the year when the rabbis, who all happen to have nice voices and good ears, participate equally. I was to lead Shaharit on Yom Kippur and the second day of Rosh Hashonah.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

119. Very long

High Holiday services are long. Very, very long. Mornings begin with Shaharit, which starts at 9 and is followed about two hours later by the reading of the Torah. On Yom Kippur there's also Yizkor, memorial prayers, and Avodah, a special service commemorating the ancient high priests, which my synagogue omits. In between are divrei Torah, commentary, by the rabbis and members of the congregation, and an occasional piece by the choir. Then there's Musaf, a repetition of the the morning with extras like the shofar thrown in, just in case you missed it the first time. On Rosh Hashonah we get to go home at 1 or 2 and eat for many hours before returning for a brief, pre-dinner evening service. On Yom Kippur everyone comes back for Minha, the afternoon service, and stays through sunset for Ne'ila, the "closing of the gates," which concludes with all the children in the congregation processing through the darkened sanctuary with (battery-operated) candles, and a final, triumphant blowing of the shofar to symbolize that God is done writing in the Book of Life until next year.

(Well, not really. The Book traditionally doesn't "close" until the holiday of Hoshanah Rabah a week later, so we get another couple of days to finish atoning.)

It's an exhausting--in a good way--marathon of prayer.

Monday, July 11, 2005

118. The CDs


The cantor handed out a bunch of CDs at the end of the study session. I got three: Shaharit services from last year's High Holidays, including Yom Kippur and both days of Rosh Hashonah. All the services at my synagogue are recorded. I had no idea.

"Do you have the sheet music, too?" asked the pop singer. The cantor smiled. "Everything you need is on the CD. Just follow along with a machzor [the High Holiday prayer book]."

So we would have to figure out our parts in the traditional way--aural memorization, listen and repeat over and over again, the way it was done long before the age of recording devices. And, as always at my synagogue, we would honor the past while also embracing the future. God might not have written about MP3 files in the Torah, but He surely imagined them.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

117. Red kipa

The woman next to me at services yesterday morning got up during the haftarah reading, and about a minute later F. came over and sat in her empty seat. I was surprised; F. spends most of the service circling the sanctuary, scooping up and positioning the honorees, and rarely stops moving. "You know what I like about this place?" he leaned over and whispered. "I get to see people I know outside of shul!" He was out of the seat and running up front before I could think of a response.

A few minutes later, as F. was herding together the people who would carry the Torah up and down the aisles, the rabbi grabbed him by the arm and pulled him over to the bima. This was highly unusual; the rabbi never interrupts the service, which would be a tirha d'tzibura--a "burden on the congregation," an annoyance--a principle my synagogue takes very seriously.

"I want you all to look at this," said the rabbi, with a grin. "F. is wearing a red kipa!" Today was parashat Hukkat, which opens with the story of the Red Heifer. F. pointed to his tie, also bright red. F. was, without a doubt, the most sartorially coordinated gabbai in all of New York, if not the world.

"Let's see if he wears a donkey next week! [parashat Balak, featuring Balaam and the ass]"! added the rabbi, before he let go of F.'s arm.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

116. Subway

(Interrupting myself again.)

As if the universe knew I had just written about him and wanted to provide me with a little more material, I ran into F. on the train the other day. It was a bit jarring; he was in the wrong place, and I told him so. He smiled, and said he recognized me immediately because I was intent upon a PDA (he knows I look at a computer screen all day long). Once we both acknowledged that we lived in the real world, the conversation ground to a halt.

"Are you coming from work?" I asked, above screech of wheels.

"No, just going to the store to return this shirt." He held up a bag.

"Oh!" I said. We smiled. I stood there awkwardly, not knowing where to look, trying my hardest to think of topics of conversation.

"When are you reading again?" said F. as we pulled into the station. I laughed; that's what he asks every time I chant. I told him I didn't know, which is how I always answer, and he smiled again. We both stared at our shoes. The doors closed.

"I love hearing R. [the rabbi] read when someone doesn't show up, don't you?" he said suddenly.

"Yes!" I answered, relieved that we finally found a topic."It was amazing to hear him on Shavuot, and my favorite part of Simchat Torah is when he reads the last paragraph."

"I can't think of that holiday without hearing his voice!" said F., eyes bright with enthusiasm. He now looked like he was in the right place, even though we were still on the train. We got to my stop.

"See you tomorrow!"

"Yes, tomorrow!"

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

115. Crash course

(Note: I omitted someone in yesterday's post! I've amended it and added her.)

Our group of crash-course service leaders were invited to join the rabbis and cantor for three study sessions to explore what it meant to be a shaliach tzibur, and to hear their perspectives on questions like, "What right do I have to stand up in front of everyone when I have so much atoning to do, myself?" Our first meeting took place in the rabbi's office, where I sunk into the sofa and listened to the pop singer and the freshman analyze a passage about prayer and music from Sefer Chasidim, a twelfth-century work on the ethical implications of daily life. I felt like I had gained access to an inner sanctum, never having been in a rabbi's office before, and was so intimidated and distracted by this idea that I contributed little to the discussion. But I listened carefully, especially when the rabbi spoke about bringing whomever you are at the moment--happy, depressed, intimidated--to the bima, and not expecting to be perfect, because no one is.

(Interestingly, this meeting was exactly one year ago today.)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

114. Recruits

(Resuming the story.)

Six of us had been recruited to help lead. There was a guy I knew from around the bonfire at retreats who could sing any pop song ever written; a girl about to start her freshman year at Yale and who, incredibly, had led part of last year's services; the principal of a Hebrew day school, an early civil rights activist who marched with Heschel and King; a young rabbi, the administrator of a Jewish educational program; a social worker, wife of another rabbi, with a newborn son; my Torah chanting teacher, who had sung Kol Nidre for the past fifteen years; and myself, a graphic designer with serious stage fright who knew the alto parts of a hundred choral masses but not very much when it came to praying on Yom Kippur.

Along with one cantor, four rabbis, a dozen instrumentalists, and a few score Torah readers and darshanim, and at a synagogue, a church, and a theater, we would help make the sounds to accompany 4,000 congregants as they stepped into next year.

Monday, July 04, 2005

113. Time traveler

F.'s grandfather was the cantor at my synagogue for 40 years, in the days when women wore white gloves to services and the congregation was Conservative in all senses of the word. His family stuck around when there was barely a minyan and through a sea change of ideas, rabbis, and thousands of new members. F. is in his 50s, neither old nor gray, and has a high-tech job, a wife, and a shy, brilliant teenage daughter. He's lived on the Upper West Side for decades, probably in the same apartment, but doesn't quite seem to belong here, today, in the 21st century. I imagine him as a time traveler, carrying our Torah scrolls with utmost care across a windswept, wobbling bridge that spans the era from then to now. He reminds me of the uncles I knew when I was a child, formal and yet always in good humor, most at ease in a world where people nod hello instead of hugging and where everyone, not just the hasids in deepest Brooklyn, reads Hebrew the Ashkenazi way. I've seen him rushing down the street, eyes averted, as if he couldn't wait to leave the alien land and get back to his own. Whenever I chant, he comes over afterwards and shakes my hand and says something so kind and witty about how well I did, how I read just like people used to--people who were men only, an idea from the past which, unlike his suits, he's long discarded--that I smile for hours afterwards.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

112. Gabbai

(Interrupting the story yet again.)

This past Shabbat I chanted again, 23 long verses--the most I've ever done. I was fortunate to be able to iron out the mistakes, and there were many, at the minyan on Monday and Thursday mornings with F., the Shabbat gabbai, and M., a sweet, elderly man who's there every single day of the week, following along at the bima. They're the best possible guides for (as F. puts it) an "out-of-town tryout"--between them they've probably read every word in the Torah thousands of times, more even than the rabbis.

F.'s usual gabbai role on Shabbat is the other meaning of the word. He's the master choreographer who scours the pews for in-laws of the bride's cousins and other errant olim, making sure they have tallitot and sheparding them to the right spot on the bima so they can open the Ark or perform additional stress-inducing honors. In a suit that looks like the one my father bought off the rack at Alexander's in 1973, and a tie often coordinated, absent all irony, with the week's Torah portion (rainbows for parashat Noah), F. arrives at around 10 and escorts his mother to her usual seat on the left aisle. He then begins to prowl the sanctuary and gather up all the players so there will be no break in the morning's theater.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

111. Something more

(Resuming the story from here. I may not be able to write very much during the next few weeks because of other commitments, but still aim to finish telling this story over the summer, before the next part begins--the next set of High Holidays.)

I then waited for something more to happen. It didn't. Weeks passed, and the cantor didn't mention it again. Maybe I misinterpreted, and his silence meant that I was on a list, most likely at the bottom, and I probably wouldn't be leading. Or maybe he changed his mind. Of course he changed his mind. I waited another few weeks and then, because the anticipation was starting to drive me crazy, approached him after services. I braced myself for a gentle dismissal.

"Yes, I'll be in touch about this very soon!" he said, and was cornered by a bar mitzvah parent before I could find out more. A few days later I got an email inviting me to a study session with the rabbis and the other few congregants who, like myself, would be leading for the first time.

I guess this meant I wasn't dreaming.

Friday, July 01, 2005

110. Mr. Hexter's head

Interrupting the story with, uncharacteristically, a photo. Last month I attended my synagogue's annual community retreat, and a friend captured this unique portrait of what I believe is a representation of Mr. Hexter's head as it presides over the lake from its permanent home next to a tree stump. Since I felt the need, for reasons I don't fully understand, to acknowledge the existence of this head in a previous post, it seemed appropriate to share the image with the rest of the world.