Wednesday, August 31, 2005

160. Rock star

My first rehearsal of High Holiday music was with the cantor's brother, a keyboardist. Although he'd been joining us once a year for quite a long time, he didn't look much older than 30. I had never seen him before; I always attended services at one of the locations where he didn't play. So it took me a moment to realize that the extraordinarily good looking guy who approached me that evening in the empty sanctuary, who resembled Jude Law but with longer, straighter hair and higher cheekbones, was in fact he. I think I gasped, but quickly regained my composure. I had no problem at all spending two hours singing to a very handsome younger man.

He shook my hand and smiled, as sweet and shy as the cantor and not at all intimidating, and I calmed down. He sat at the keyboard and began to play--exactly like his brother, the same nuances and phrases. It was eerie. We started on the first page and kept going with barely a break. And it was great. I remembered every note of every prayer I had been singing for months to my cats, standing a little too close to the front door and unwittingly providing my neighbors with a lesson in High Holiday liturgy. (I didn't know this until the woman down the hall stopped me in the elevator one day and commented on the unusual noises coming from my apartment). In a few places he suggested I go faster or slower, but there were really no problems. Standing there, singing into a microphone with a cute guy playing along, I felt like I was living out a truly excellent fantasy. No matter that it was Yom Kippur music for an audience of one. It was still a blast, and certainly the closest I would come, in this lifetime, to being a rock star.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

159. Flat

A few days later I got a call from the cantor, who agreed that things went well. (Whereupon I heaved a sigh of relief big enough to power a sailboat.) He also noted that I sang flat, and really shouldn't do that anymore. Hearing this from anyone else would have been mortifying, but he was so tactful and kind that I was grateful for the honesty. If he hadn't said anything, in fact, I would have wondered if he was listening at all.

He offered me a CD of the service so I could hear myself--in preparation for the next time I would lead. I had no idea I would be able to do it again, and was greatly relieved to have another chance to get it right.

I sounded, on the CD, like I was being strangled as I sang, and that every muscle in my body and throat had tried to curl up in a little ball and hide. But it still wasn't as bad as I imagined, and I was encouraged to learn that I could trust my own ears. There would have been a much bigger problem if I thought I sounded like Maria Callas and then discovered otherwise.

Later that week our small bunch of lay service leaders had the last of three study sessions with the rabbis. The pop singer, I noticed, didn't attend. We studied a text from the Talmud which said that God prays, too--to us, asking us to remind Him of His mercy if He happened to forget. I sat there hoping I wouldn't need to do this, and that my next time leading, in two weeks, would go well.


Moving, briefly, to the present: I had another rehearsal last night, which was great. But apparently the schedule is still in flux, and things were a little chaotic--in a good-natured way, because everyone really does love everyone else--as the instrumentalists tried to figure out when to rehearse with singers with whom they weren't even sure they'd be performing. As long as someone tells me whether to show up at the synagogue, church, or theater, I'll be just fine.

Monday, August 29, 2005

158. Thanks

And so (continuing) we finished the service. I knew I was singing flat, since I pretty much stopped breathing for an hour. I don't remember much about the two hours that followed, as I sat in a daze with the congregation, or the lunch at a friend's house afterwards, where I felt as exhausted as if I'd run a marathon.

On Sunday I awakened to find an email from the rabbi. I won't quote it, since I haven't asked permission to use his words--but to paraphrase, he offered heartfelt congratulations, said it was a pleasure to share the bima with me, and that he was looking forward to doing it again on the holidays.

I was overwhelmed by his graciousness, and that he would take time to thank me. I couldn't imagine finding enough words in the world to thank him, and the universe, for the privilege of that morning. The closest I could come was in one of my favorite parts of the Shabbat service:

Could song fill our mouths as water fills the sea
And could joy flood our tongues like countless waves,
Could our lips utter praise as limitless as the sky
And could our eyes match the splendor of the sun,
Could we soar with arms like eagles' wings
And run with gentle grace, as the swiftest deer,
Never could we full state our gratitude
For one ten-thousandth of the lasting love
Which is your precious blessing, dearest God,
granted to our ancestors and us.


Also: I just learned that I'll be leading Shaharit for both days of Rosh Hashonah as well as Yom Kippur. It's just a little bit less than last year, when plans changed down to the wire and I was asked to lead the Torah service for two of those days. (Which was out of the ordinary; usually that short service is led by the person who does the longer one immediately following. And I also ended up helping out with a third service on Yom Kippur, very unexpected, but I'll get to that part of the story soon...) I'm really glad that I'm needed for the entire holiday. I'll also be sitting in with the choir when not otherwise occupied.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

157. Ego

The summer is almost over, which means only one more week of a single Friday night service. (There will be two after Labor Day, one at the synagogue and another, starting a little later, at the church.) The format was different these past months; instead of two leaders up front at the bima, everyone--rabbis and instrumentalists--sat in the center, surrounded by all of us. Friday night was a full house, with the cantor at the keyboard accompanied by a guitarist, cellist, upright bass player, oud player, percussionist, and--making me wish cameras were allowed on Shabbat--three rabbis on drums. Their joy at being with each other again, after weeks of overlapping vacations, was contagious. They stood only as the ritual required; you couldn't see them at all if you were sitting beyond the first few rows, which I think was the point. We all became equal parts of this music, clapping, dancing and singing as it got louder and carried us somewhere above the dark blue and gold that stretches beyond the top of the Ark. Unlike the kind of slow, strong, woven energy I wrote about on Friday, this was combustion, the fabric set on fire.

I walked out feeling like I had been injected with Shabbat. I took the long way home and wondered if they would go back to the usual, non-traditional, participatory "old" format, with leaders standing up front. On the one hand, these past eight Fridays were not nearly enough; I craved more. On the other--on the ego-driven, selfish other hand--this would mean I'd have many fewer opportunities, if any, to help lead.

In writing about the past year, especially now that I've finally reached the part about leading during the High Holidays, I need to acknowledge the elephant in the living room. It's not just about me having an amazing spiritual experience at the bima. I also like being up front, even though it makes my knees shake, and I enjoy the satisfaction of doing well and having others tell me so. I know this is OK, and normal. Judaism isn't an ascetic religion; we encourage, in sensible amounts, pleasure, pride, and related forms of happiness, while also asking in our prayers each day: "Let me be humble before all." We read, this Shabbat in Parashat Ekev, that "man does not live on bread alone," meaning that we need need food for the soul and senses, as well. But in context this line also suggests that we can live on less than bread (manna, subsistence unadorned). Whatever God provides is good. I've been given an incredible year of learning, growth, and opportunity, and have no right to expect more. I need to say "dayenu"--sufficient!--to anything else that happens. And afterwards, in another lesson learned from this parasha, I need to give thanks for the abundance I've enjoyed.

The rabbis and cantor at my synagogue, brilliant people who choose to keep a low profile, are excellent models of how to balance ego and humility. All their innovations in ritual are geared towards making the experience more participatory--what first drew me to this congregation, and back to Judaism--and less about the person standing up front. I still don't know how much, or where or when, I'll be leading for the High Holidays. I'm assuming it will be less than last year, when I did a lot because other leaders needed help or dropped out. Whatever it will be, it's not about me--and it will be very, very good.

Friday, August 26, 2005

156. Thread

I felt like I had been entrusted with a precious jewel, my job to guard it and make sure it kept shining. But if I hovered too closely, there would be no room for light to enter and reflect back. And I would be blinded if I focused too much on the glow.

I relaxed a little more each time it was my turn to sing and tried to remember that I was praying, not performing. It wasn't easy--I wanted to sound good, but there was so much to think about that I kept forgetting to breathe. I knew I was singing flat. I watched for those small signals from the rabbi--a nod, the slight lift of a finger--and didn't miss a single cue. I was afraid it would all end, somehow, if I came in a second later than I was supposed to.

This kind of praying, I began to understand, was a partnership, just like when I stood in that same spot and chanted Torah while surrounded by gabbaim, olim, and the other players in the ritual. The three of us, rabbi to my left and cantor at the right, were weaving the first threads of some sort of amazing garment. And the congregation's responses filled in the rest of the texture, creating a fabric strong enough to hold us all. I couldn't hear the people in the sanctuary very well, but watched their bodies move in song to the rhythms we led, as if trying to draw a thread between themselves and the bima.

The rabbi had a beautiful, gentle voice. He radiated energy like a warm and steady desert wind; I could feel it, physically, buttressing me and smoothing over my nerves.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

155. Microphone

As soon as I walked out front, the space under the sofa lost its allure. There was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be.

I stopped at the left side of the bima and opened my siddur. (I worked out that part of the choreography beforehand; this rabbi always stood on the right.) Everyone seemed very far away; I tried to find my friends in the crowd and noticed only darkness beyond the first row. And the back wall of the sanctuary appeared to buckle like it was painted on a balloon, a distortion of my visual field that I knew was a sign of my mind attempting to make sense of stress. Maybe this was its way of pretending all those people were even more distant than they really were, like the warning on the side mirror of a car.

But I could see the prayer book just fine, although the microphone obscured half my view. The cantor had told me to make sure it was directly in front of my mouth and not on an angle, so I moved it over and hoped I didn't look like I was strangling the thing. All I got was a bigger shape across the page, as if someone had drawn a line with a thick black marker. I remembered that the cantor was just a few feet away and able to manipulate knobs and dials to make sure I was heard, and decided to stop wrestling with the goosenecked shadow.

The music began and the rabbi and I started singing, a wordless niggun. The next prayer was in unison, as well, and then it was my turn to begin alone. I heard a voice coming out of my mouth, although not loudly; there were no monitors to send back the sound. But I knew it was going in the right direction.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

154. Baby bird

(Back to the story.)

The rabbi didn't actually push me through the door, but I still felt like a baby bird being kicked out of the nest. For about a second I contemplated running back into the Secret Rabbi Room and perhaps crawling under the sofa.

My stage fright isn't as bad as some. I can speak in front of groups, as long as there's a script. But every once in awhile I find myself in a situation which elicits the same kind of primal fear that originated back when cave people came face to face with wild beasts. The first time was at a piano recital when I was 11; I was second from last on the bill, and spent two hours waiting backstage and biting my nails. Finally it was my turn, and I walked out on stage and sat down at the piano bench--and the next thing I remember was the sound of applause, and my teacher gesturing from the wings for me to take a bow. Apparently I played well, even though my mind was on some other planet at the time.

I was a bit more aware of my surroundings when I sang my first solo ever, twenty years later, at an a cappella workshop. The setting couldn't have been safer: a song arranged just for me by my boyfriend at the time, who stood behind me on stage. And an audience comprised of fellow students who would tell me I was fantastic even if I collapsed mid-verse. But I walked out front, looked at a terrain of faces which seemed swollen at the center, like in a funhouse mirror, and thought: I am going to die. Right now. This is it.

I opened my mouth and sang, and was still alive at the end, although I wasn't quite sure how or why.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

153. Possibilities

(Still digressing.)

This past Shabbat I chanted an enormous (for me) Torah portion, and was concerned that it would go on and on and get boring. I thought of the cantor, who could keep us engaged while singing the phone book. He never makes a superfluous or casual sound; every note seems to have intention and purpose, even though he repeats the same prayers week after week, year after year. He sings as if every instance of those words yields a new discovery.

I listen and am reminded of what's said about the Torah, that each of its letters exists for a reason. This idea is often used as an excuse to keep traditions fixed and unchanging--but its flip side is that every word is a universe in itself, to be honored and explored. I can't know, of course, if the way he sings is just marvelous theater, or how authentic and honest his prayers may be. But to me it sounds like those notes come from his heart, and that he never tires of seeking out the worlds that lie behind each syllable. I tried to keep this in mind as I chanted my Torah portion, thinking about the meaning of what I read even though my comprehension was incomplete. I tried, as I sang, to convey my desire to understand.

It's a good lesson about life, too. There's no excuse for boredom; everything around us offers infinite possibilities.

Maybe this is why the cantor can make music that so powerfully reflects and carries the emotions of the crowd. His singing isn't just an expression of talent and ego but is truly offered on our behalf by someone on the same journey, helping us put a voice to our own individual searches.

Monday, August 22, 2005

152. Comfort

(Interrupting the story.)

Yesterday I attended the funeral of an elderly member of my extended family. I didn't know her well, but others to whom I'm close were very close to her. She suffered greatly during the past few years, and even her son acknowledged that her death was, in that awful but appropriate phrase, a blessing in disguise. This didn't make her passing any less sad--and for me, it marked the loss of yet another person who knew my parents, and myself when I was a child. More and more I become one of the few remaining repositories of those memories.

But I was comforted on Sunday morning as I recalled the words of one of the rabbis at services on Shabbat (fittingly, since it was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, a theme of the next two months as we prepare for the High Holidays). In last week's Torah portion, Va'ethanan, God tells Moses that he won't enter the promised land. Moses responds by writing the book of Deuteronomy and re-telling the entire story so future generations may know and learn from his experiences. He turns despair into an opportunity to teach and grow. The rabbi drew parallels between this "no" and the ones we all face in life, and spoke of others who chose to make endings into new beginnings: a prisoner she visits regularly, who decided that incarceration wouldn't mean death and began an educational program for fellow inmates; a member of our congregation who passed away last week and, upon hearing he had only a few months to live, devoted that time to resolving issues with his family. And the Gaza settlers, most of whom are facing this ending of a part of their lives with grace and hope for the future, even though it entails great pain. I thought about my elderly relative, whose "no" from God was enormous but who was optimistic and expressive of deep love until the day she died.

Jews are not big on talking about faith. One can be Jewish, even Orthodox and observant, without believing. It's the struggle to understand and acknowledge faith, or not, and to learn and grow in the process, which marks a Jewish life. But that act of learning and sharing, especially in face of a "no," seems to me like a most palpable declaration of belief. Confronted by a closed door--whether the end of life, a loss, the passing of an opportunity--we can acknowledge that something is on the other side, and continue to search for whatever it might be. I see God residing in that hope, always reminding us that we're not alone.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

151. In a hurry

"Yes!" I answered, "--but I have a question." I spoke quickly, because he was walking towards the door. It was 9:31, and services always began promptly; the rabbis weren't really as relaxed about time as they sometimes appeared to be.

"The Barchu...?" I said. He nodded. "Yes, you do it." One person begins this prayer, the communal call to worship. We face the Ark, which means those at the bima turn their backs on everyone else. And the leader must also twist the microphone around in the opposite direction in order to be heard--so it helps to know if you're the leader.

"And," he added, "you start the Ashrei." It's sung call-and-response style, and was also the prayer I led at my Bat Torah when I was 12. I felt like something in my life had just come full circle, although wasn't sure what.

I would also begin the Amidah, the standing prayer, and wouldn't sing much at the start of the Nishmat section. I had resolved those two issues with one of the other rabbis about 30 seconds before the remaining two arrived, a very good thing because this rabbi was now clearly in a hurry.

He gave me a hug and opened the door to the sanctuary.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

150. Ready

So I sat on the sofa and waited. The rabbis and cantor finally arrived about a minute before the service was to begin, as I wrote about here, and made casual conversation as I sat frozen in a state somewhere between nervousness and terror. The rational part of my brain knew I'd do fine, and really wanted to savor and be fully present for the wonderful hour sure to follow. The rest of my brain felt like it was about to jump off a very high cliff.

The cantor left to sit behind his keyboard, and the other two rabbis to join the congregation until they needed to come back up front for second half of the service. The rabbi I was leading with--the same one whose drumming and smiling at the singles' retreat convinced me that this community was worth checking out--draped his tallit over his head for a moment and said a prayer, and then wrapped it around his shoulders.

"Ready?" he asked.

Friday, August 19, 2005

149. Arrival

Because I try not to take the bus on Shabbat and also love strolling down West End Avenue, where it's easy to forget that the whole world isn't Jewish, I always aim to leave sufficient time to walk to services. This Saturday morning I allowed over an hour to travel the mile, just in case--I forgot how to walk en route? I got lost? Nothing happening in the universe at that moment seemed more important than my prompt arrival at the synagogue. I can't remember if it was hot or cold outside, and would have been oblivious to a blizzard. I do recall performing the entire service in my head to the rhythm of my measured steps on the pavement, nerves increasing exponentially with each block.

There were only a few people in the sanctuary when I arrived, and no one saw me sidle into the Secret Rabbi Room. Once I closed the door and looked around, it didn't seem quite as sacrosanct as I had imagined. (And now quoting myself--am I allowed to do that in a blog?--from back in February):

"I call it the Secret Rabbi Room. From a door behind the bima they emerge at the start of each service, mysterious as Israelites arising from the Red Sea. Or at least that's how it seemed until I got to see, and exit, the Room for myself. The one in the synagogue is a casual little lounge, with a tan leather sofa, photos of Israel, and the imposing locked back of the Ark along one entire wall. There's a pile of boxes filled with CDs, some old siddurim, and a mirror. It wouldn't be good to face the congregation with spinach on your teeth. During my moments of complete terror right before the first time I helped lead Shabbat morning services, I was excited to notice a Gemini II alarm panel on the wall. I was, coincidentally, in the middle of designing a Flash animation for an alarm company to show how to arm this very same panel after it was installed next to your front door. I tried to staunch torrents of adrenaline by contemplating the meaning of safety, whether in the real world or during prayer, but all I could think was: how weird is this. Some of my reality is here."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

148. Rotating

It wasn't until I got out of the shower and put on my most conservative outfit, a black skirt, white blouse, and high heels--not that it mattered, not that anyone cares or even notices what people wear at my synagogue, but it felt like the right thing to do--that I started to get nervous. I reviewed the siddur, marked with color-coded Post-its and pencil notes that said "Breathe! Relax!." In a few places I had big question marks and the word "Rotate??" I had asked the cantor how I would know which prayers and verses to sing. The rabbis made it look seamless--one would follow immediately after the other finished a liine, as if they planned it in advance. But they didn't. "I can tell you what to sing," said the cantor, "but I'd rather not. We'll divide everything three ways. Just come in when it's your turn."

"The rabbi will give you a signal, and I'll see your body language," he added. He sat off to the side, perpendicular to the bima, able to watch every move we made--but we couldn't turn around and look back, at least not while praying. "I'll jump in if you don't." It was a little unnerving to realize that the flow of the service depended upon a network of subtle shrugs and glances.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

147. Rowing machine

At services that Friday, not trusting the CDs, I indulged my paranoia and spent the evening trying to figure out what keys the prayers were really in so I could be completely prepared. They were, of course, in the same keys as on the CDs, and anyone who saw me hitting myself repeatedly on the kneecap with a tuning fork must must have wondered if I had my own special way of praying.

A few months earlier, in a rare fit of athletic zeal, I bought a used rowing machine on Craig's List. Its main use since then had been as a receptacle for dust. But early the next morning, as I started to warm up, I realized that the rowing machine would be a perfect assistant--I could infuse my lungs with some extra air and vocalize at the same time, too. So for the next hour there I sat, or rather moved back and forth repeatedly on a plastic chair along a little metal track, breathing deeply and singing Shabbat prayers. It felt great.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

146. Another lesson, part 2

I continued, punctuated by his interruptions. He pointed out numerous pronunciation errors and said I was underemphasizing consonants. Hebrew is all about those gruff "ch" sounds which Americans, and particularly me, aren't very good at. He also noted that I was, in a way, singing too much--allowing the melody to carry the words--rather than keeping the words pre-eminent, and then adding the tune on top. I chanted Torah this way at times, he said, and demonstrated. The contrast was striking, the difference between a pretty song and a powerful statement set to notes.

"You know," he added, after I warmed up a bit, "I don't think you're an alto." The other voice teacher had also suggested as much. It was an oddly disturbing idea, like when I discovered that my cat, whom I had been told was male and had given a dignified guy's name, was in fact female. It was unnerving enough to imagine myself, unsure and untrained, leading a congregation, but abandoning my proud, long-standing and quirky identity as an alto was too jarring to contemplate. I tabled the problem for later.

I was also fascinated by the many brilliant words about vocal technique being uttered by the cantor, who rarely spoke in public aside from an occasional "Please turn to page 92." And I was amazed that he would spend two hours during one of the busiest weeks of his year to coach me with so much patience, precision, and tact.

Finally we reached the end of the service. He told me which rabbi I'd accompany--unless it was someone else. These plans, apparently, were fluid.

And that was all. Now I just had to show up and sing. I thanked him profusely and left in a state of ecstatic, terrified anticipation at what I would do in a few days.

Monday, August 15, 2005

145. Another lesson, part 1

( Continuing.)

And so, sitting there in the office, I began to sing. It was strange following the keyboard while keyboard was also following me, the cantor changing tempi to accommodate my phrasing. I was nervous and self-conscious, and sounded horrible. I kept forgetting to breathe, and strained to hit the high notes.

He stopped playing. "Don't try to sound like me, " he said, and leaned back in his chair. Egads; I was probably doing a bad imitation without even knowing it, since I heard those prayers in his voice all the time. "I sing from the place I speak," he continued, and then demonstrated, vocalizing a low note. "But you sing higher than you speak. Use more air, have the sound come from your head." He made a light, floaty noise that seemed to emanate from somewhere around his ears.

Of course he was right. I stood up and started again; it sounded much better.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

144. Tisha be'Av

(Digressing, once again.)

Today is Tisha be'Av, a holiday in remembrance of many sad events. Some believe, however, that we should no longer be mournful on this day, since a Jewish state exists; we've fulfilled our dreams. (The cousin of a friend, in fact, is getting married today.) It's confusing, like any situation in which you're expected to experience a particular emotion. Depending upon where your heart might be at that moment, what's prescribed doesn't always feel right. On Friday the rabbi taught that sages of centuries past declared this a day of reflection upon our own role in the causing of communal and individual suffering. (And he suggested that today's government leaders would be much less likely to invent such a holiday.) Jews have certainly been victims of injustice. But we've also stood by while others were being victimized, and this is a day to accept responsibility for those acts.

Last night we read Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, while sitting on the floor in darkness, and discussed a Talmudic text about the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel, who in their writings both edited out some of God's "divine attributes." (In words we say every day during the Amidah, Moses calls God "great, awesome, and mighty." Jeremiah, citing the fact that God allowed the destruction of the Temple, eliminates "awesome." Daniel, citing, slavery, eliminates "mighty.") The Rabbis of the Great Assembly, however, restored mention of these attributes to Jewish prayer. Who was correct? On the one hand, what chutzpah of Jeremiah and Daniel to change the words of the greatest leader of all, the only one in our tradition who encountered God "panim el panim," face to face. On the other hand, what right did the Rabbis of the Great Assembly have to deny the legitimacy of individual opinion, and the importance of prayer as an expression of how we each relate to God? Such is a dilemma of Tisha be'Av. Should we fast because our tradition says so, or have events of recent history changed our need to remember in this particular way?

Someone else last night commented that he was at a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) service during which the rabbi--who was Orthodox--explained that he would not be reciting the mourner's kaddish, the prayer in remembrance of the dead, at the end as is traditional, because the words of the kaddish are about the glory of God. And nothing at all about the Holocaust warranted mention of God's glory.

So this holiday, in addition to marking many sad events, also reminds us of the tension between following rules and cultural norms instead of one's own gut--a struggle that itself has precipitated tragedies. This evening I'll be chanting haftarah, a passage from Isaiah about how God will bring us joy and a place in the world to come--"yad vashem," "a monument and a name"--if we follow His rules. It's a comforting thought, but I wish it were that simple. I'm continually grateful for a tradition that encourages me to wrestle with these questions.

Friday, August 12, 2005

142. Office

I arrived at the cantor's office on Wednesday not knowing what to expect. How do you rehearse a religious service? It's not theater, although it comes close. But the concept of doing a dry run of praying seemed very odd.

I was directed to a room with an extra-thick and soundproof set of double doors. Inside, overlooking Broadway and a family of pigeons sitting on a gargoyle, was an L-shaped desk sunk into an ocean of paper and books. A computer sat on one half of the L, a keyboard and mixing deck on the other. It looked like someone tried to cross a music studio with a library and then gave up in the middle.

The cantor pulled another chair over to his desk and motioned for me to sit. "OK, let's start," he said. He cleared some sheet music from the keyboard and, without any further explanation, began to play "Modah ani," the first prayer of the Saturday morning service.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

141. Update


My memory finally kicked back into gear after a few hours of practice, and yesterday's High Holiday rehearsal was quick and great--and felt like last September had been last week, no passage of time at all. It was just myself, the flutist, and a new keyboard player; the oud player was sick and the cantor had other, more important things to do (his wife gave birth to a girl in the morning!). We were in the synagogue, although I won't necessarily be there once the schedule is sorted out. The keyboard player from last year, and many previous, was the cantor's very handsome brother, more about whom I'll write later. This year he'll be at the new synagogue of our former rabbinic fellow, where he may stay permanently. Which is a marvelous opportunity, but I'll miss his steady, calm presence in the band.

The guy taking his place is terrific, however. We went through everything, non-stop, in about an hour (it takes at least twice as long in reality, what with all the talking and praying). Although I hadn't warmed up properly and lost my voice at the end, I barely stumbled. It was, dare I say, almost anticlimactic to sing those thousands of words with such relative ease after so many hours of preparation, angst, and pages of this blog...but only in the sense of a lack of anticipated nerves. It's now really part of me, and I can concentrate on what I'm saying instead of my ability to say it. And this will create a whole new kind of wonderful anticipation.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

140. My turn

I didn't have to wait long to find out. The cantor called the following week.

"Can you lead next Shabbat morning?" he asked. I felt my heart try to exit my throat. He would get me CDs of a previous service, so I could practice in the interim.

"And we will have a rehearsal," he added. "Call me on Monday."

That weekend was wall-to-wall Shacharit, as I divided all available hours between going over the Shabbat service and continuing to review the High Holidays. We arranged to meet on Wednesday. I didn't know if a rabbi would be there, too, or even which one I would accompany.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

139. Missing the cue

The cantor had mentioned, weeks earlier, that those of us who never led services before would get to practice on a Saturday morning. Shacharit during the summer attracts a sparse crowd, relatively speaking--200 instead of 500+--an imposing sea of faces nevertheless. Shabbat prayers were similar to what I was learning, with some different tunes I had known for years. But the summer was half over, and I hadn't heard anything further... I knew I'd have to lead, but imagined it happening in some impossible future, weeks and weeks away.

I walked into services the following Shabbat and, lo and behind, there was the pop singer at the bima next to the rabbi. I suddenly got nervous; that could--would--be me. He looked very intense and cool, trading prayers, alternating verses, jumping in after the keyboard intro--and sometimes not. It seemed that the rabbi and cantor were waiting for him to start, but when a barely perceptible moment passed and he didn't, they sang the line instead. Once or twice he did come in, but stumbled after few words. Was he supposed to sing those sections? Did he miss the cue? Was there a cue? I didn't catch any overt signals, and deconstructing the situation seemed impossible without watching an instant replay. But, overall, I thought he sounded pretty good. To maintain one's composure at all when singing in front of the congregation and in close proximity to awe-inspiring clergy struck me as an enormous accomplishment, and I had no idea how I would duplicate the feat.

I went up and congratulated him at the end of services. He wasn't happy. He had one rehearsal with the rabbi, and they figured out how to divide the prayers, but he ran out of practice time the week before and didn't feel prepared. He'd get to do it again in a few weeks after, he hoped, some more rehearsals.

OK, I thought; this doesn't look easy, but I'll be fine, with enough lead time. I still didn't know when my assigned Shabbat would be, but there weren't many choices left.

Monday, August 08, 2005

138. Balance

On the day of the lesson I woke up with the beginnings of a cold, harbinger of an unfortunate trend that would continue for the next two months. I went anyway, figuring I could coax out enough of a sound so that the teacher, whose brilliance at this sort of thing made up for his relative lack of charm, could figure out what I was doing wrong. Punctuated by my coughing, we ran through the usual drill--I sang scales and made strange therapeutic noises--and then reviewed a few prayers from the machzor. At the end he had me try an illuminating exercise in which I lay on the floor flat on my back and sang as high as I could. Even with the cold, I reached an altitude that had seemed impossible for this lifetime. The teacher's conclusion:

1. I needed to stand up straighter. (I knew this. It was the first bit of technical criticism anyone ever gave me. You'd think that after a decade I'd be able to get it right.)

2. I needed to open my mouth wider. (I knew this, too.)

3. I shouldn't be afraid of using vibrato, the gentle, shimmery tonal fluctuations that sound awful if not produced correctly. Think of bad opera singers and aging members of community choirs. (Usually my voice had a little vibrato. But too much and I was afraid of sounding pretentious or, worse, like I was doing a bad imitation of a cantor. So I tried to avoid it altogether.)

4. I should stop worrying. I would be fine.

I left the lesson buoyed but still nervous. If I had to focus all my concentration on making sounds, how would I pray? Balancing the theater of the event with its spirit seemed like a very difficult task.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

136. Voice lessons

(Back to the story.)

Halfway through the summer, I realized I was being a little too creative in my editing of notes from the CDs. I couldn't reach the high ones, and had a 50-50 chance of navigating the break between my chest and head voice, somewhere around the E above middle C, without coming to a screeching halt along the way. I knew how to sing correctly, in theory, but that didn't mean I could.

So I decided to take some lessons. Although I had been in choirs since I was a kid, I never really worked very hard at it. Not that I didn't love to learn and improve--hundreds of hours of a cappella workshops completely changed my sound, ear, and stamina--but I had no aspirations to be a soloist, nor did I practice a whole lot when there wasn't a fun concert coming up. New York offered plenty of opportunities--especially for an alto who could sight-read--to sing as an amateur with world-class, professional musicians at amazing places like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. So, "dayenu" ("it would have been enough").

But this was a whole different ballgame. It would be just me and a microphone for hours at a time, and no other voices to hide behind. The microphone, which I had never used before, was a scary enough prospect, to be stuck right in my face like a skinny, serpentine conduit to the ears of 1,200 people.

I contacted a vocal coach who also happened to be the music director of the synagogue where I sang the year before. He was a master technician with an uncanny ability to pick out exactly what was going wrong--and with alto voices, in particular.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

135. Menachem Av

(Another detour.)

Today was Rosh Hodesh Menachem Av, the first day of the month of Av. We sang Hallel, a special section of psalms and praise that's my favorite part of services. I remembered Passover, the last time I heard Hallel, when my joy was diluted by tears at the anticipation of an unknown and frightening journey. Hallel, I realized today, will always remind me of the thin line that separates happiness and sadness, as well as the inadequacy of even the most glorious of songs to express my gratitude to God for helping me navigate safely through that narrow place.

After services I went to a study group--for women only, in keeping with the tradition of new moon celebrations--where we read the beginning of Psalm 130 ("A song of Ascent. Out of the depths I call to You;") and discussed the task, to be taken willingly this month, of exploring our own depths as a sort of prequel to the all-out soul-searching of Elul and the countdown to the High Holidays. "Menachem," meaning "comforter" or "consoler," is often added to the name of the month to remind us that we're not alone during our search, and that the only way out, once at the bottom, is to ascend. We wished each other, as I do everyone reading this, a fruitful, productive descent followed by a going up of abundant goodness, clarity, and joy.

Friday, August 05, 2005

134. New version

Two or three years ago, they stopped singing "U'vechen" in unison and instead rotated the five verses between them, one singer per verse. I hadn't heard this version until I listened to the CDs of the previous year's service--during which I was at another synagogue--and, although amazed that I'd get a chance to sing it at all, missed the powerful effect of multiple voices. But, unless you're in perfect synch, convincing unison is hard to pull off. (In one very fast part the rabbis even added an extra word not in the machzor, which no one told me about and I only picked up after listening to the recording a dozen times. Why? I asked. Oh, because that's how we've always done it.) So the new way made sense, especially with people leading services who hadn't sung with the rabbis before. But I wished we could do it the old way.

This slight discontent, however, barely registered on my larger scale of astonishment at what I would get to do. I would lead the morning blessings in their gentle, soaring holiday melody (for real, this time, and not in front of my bedroom mirror). And I would end the section of introductory psalms, right before the Shema, with a song on the word "HaMelech"--the King--just that word, by myself, my voice standing in on behalf of everyone else who needed to pray.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

133. Unison


All the melodies were complex, and most of them tested the limits of my untrained voice, but I found the hardest to be a section called "U'vechen," a series of paragraphs in the middle of the service. Some congregations simply read it; others, like the one I went to a few years ago, make parts into a song. My synagogue turns it into a fast, dramatic, and kind of scary solo for the rabbi(s) and cantor in a style befitting the urgency of the translation:

Let all Your creatures sense your awesome power...
Grant joy to Your land and gladness to Your city...
When You remove the tyranny of arrogance from the earth, evil will be silenced, wickedness will vanish like smoke...
Then You alone will rule all creation...

It's a prayer of loud, insistent affirmation. To pause or breathe in the middle of declaring all those truths would would be a sign of doubt, so it never stops.

I first heard "U'vechen" a few years ago, when I was in the choir and we sat in the first row of the side balcony. The cantor and both rabbis stood together at the bima, shoulder to shoulder, singing in unison. I was right above them, and could see their shaking shoulders and their hands clenched in determined, defiant fists at the edge of the podium. As much as I treasure the gender-neutral, egalitarian nature of everything that goes on at the synagogue, I counted the minutes, every year, until I could hear those three, booming male voices praise God at the top of their lungs.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

132. All over again

(And leaving the story one more time...)

Well, my plan was to finish the first part of the tale long before the next installment began, but I wasn't fast enough. Sometimes my involvement at the synagogue feels like walking through Oz--a wonderful mystery, but you never know what might transpire. It's always good, however. This morning, along with a member of the choir, I helped make a rehearsal CD of the High Holiday choir's alto part. (I'll also be sitting in with them when I can, since their numbers are low this time around.)

Right before we started, the cantor said, oh--I haven't decided what parts of the service you'll be leading, but can you come to a Yom Kippur rehearsal? We have some new instrumentalists and need to get an early start. (Yom Kippur isn't until the middle of October.)

Of course, I answered. When?

Well, today.

Yikes. I can't make it today, I said, but...

Or tomorrow, or next week, he added. So I signed up for Wednesday, which means that this weekend I have to make sure I still remember everything. And a quick review of the machzor once I got back home revealed, unfortunately, that a sizeable chunk of Yom Kippur didn't quite make it past my short-term memory and over to the permanent-storage area. The cantor will be at the rehearsal, too, unlike last year (a part of the story I really will tell, one of these weeks), so of course I'll be flustered and nervous for no good reason. But that's OK.

Monday, August 01, 2005

131. Pastiche

There were a lot of words. Fortunately they were all in the machzor, which I took with me everywhere and read over and over again. In New York no one gives you a second glance if you're mumbling to yourself in a foreign language on the subway. People will, however, sometimes get up and give you a nice, empty seat immediately to your left or right.

I alternated among the CDs, listening to the same prayers as sung by the cantor and the woman, a member of the congregation (who wouldn't be a service leader this time around--I think she decided to go to a different synagogue). Sometimes the melody was easier to discern from her voice; sometimes I liked the way he sang it better. In a few places they both raced through combinations of notes and glissandi that my vocal chords simply could not duplicate, so I edited them down. I tried to piece together a version of my own combining stylistic touches from them both, and hoped I wasn't violating any important melodic customs in the creation of this pastiche.