Thursday, September 29, 2005

182. Update

I'm still here and things are still a little nuts. Remind me, next year, to shut the office and leave town the week before Rosh Hashonah. Not kidding. I also seem to be coming down with a cold, an unfotunate echo of last year and the part of the story I haven't gotten to yet. Tomorrow I'll get some echinachea and that other remedy which is a long word beginning with an "o," add it to the zinc candies, Nyquil, and prayers, and hope that all will be well by Tuesday.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

181. Soon...

It looks like the rest of this chapter will have to wait until the weekend, or at least another day or two. This promises to be quite a week, in between staying up nights to finish work before the holidays and going to a bunch of rehearsals. Today I had an interesting non-rehearsal at the theater, where I'll be for Ne'ila on Yom Kippur. The instrumentalists came early, and had to leave by the time the sound guy showed up, late. So I chatted for a nice hour and a half. Tomorrow there's yet another rehearsal for Shaharit, which I now know inside out--but not yet with this group of musicians, with whom I'll be at the synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashonah. On Sunday I have another rehearsal, for Shaharit on Yom Kippur (which differs slightly from the same service on Rosh Hashonah), with the musicans who'll be at the church.

It's a bit confusing. But I love every minute of it.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

180. Biryani

Musaf ended just fine, after a rocky start. Now we could eat. Rosh Hashonah has no ritual meal, like a Passover seder, but every single Jew in the world eats the same thing for dinner and then again, in the form of leftovers, for lunch: gefilte fish, chicken soup, and chicken. Vegetarians eliminate the chicken, but do keep matzah balls in the soup. Sephardim add olives. Your grandmother and other ambitious cooks also make a nice brisket. One can theoretically eat this food four times over the course of two days, except if you're Reform or Israeli and only celebrate one day of the holiday. (In the diaspora, before the age of mass communication, no one could be sure exactly when the sages of Jerusalem saw the new moon, which determined the start of the holiday. So we added a second day, just in case.)

In past years I enjoyed making holiday meals for friends, but knew that this time I wouldn't have the energy. In the weeks preceding the holiday I was also a bit verklempt, a little too out of it, to make any food-related plans. So I had invitations to peoples' homes for some of the meals, but not this first lunch. My niece, who's a few years younger than me and like a sister, had come to services that morning; not a member of the synagogue, she gamely waited on line for over an hour to get in. (I've always been uncomfortable with the tradition of selling tickets to High Holidays services, but the truth is that this money is the backbone of synagogue budgets. We call them "entrance cards," free of charge to all who've paid membership dues.)

We went back to my apartment and made kiddush--I did remember to get challah and wine--and then headed across the street to an Indian restaurant. You're not supposed to exchange money on Rosh Hashonah, which follows all the rules of Shabbat, but I sometimes choose to be a little looser with those particular guidelines. I was with people I loved, perhaps not following the letter of the law but certainly the spirit. (And I was far enough away from the synagogue to be sure I wouldn't run into someone I knew. I was a little conflicted about this. I felt that I needed to set a good example, after standing in front of the congregation, but also wanted to observe the holiday in a way that was comfortable and appropriate for me.) I'm sure the Jews of India were eating chicken biryani, as well.

My niece left after lunch and, still a bit shell-shocked, I sat staring into space for about an hour until R. arrived. R. is my best friend from childhood, and we had spent a few years attending High Holiday services together at her father's synagogue in Queens, a place so moribund that I was surprised the congregation was still breathing by the end of the service. R. came to join me for the ritual of tashlikh, the casting of bread into the water as we symbolically discarded our sins for the year. With a brief stop to catch the end of a teaching at the synagogue, we headed to Riverside Park to join a few thousand other Jews and their leftover challah.


Someone sent me this nice little movie that captures the spirit of the holiday quite well. I also ran across this stream-of-consciousness guideline about how to be a cantor by your bootstraps (scroll down to the middle of the page). I had to laugh at this line: "Ideally, you are not starting out doing a full-fledged High Holiday service from beginning to end in front of several hundred people."

Saturday, September 24, 2005

179. Floating

We the reached the final prayer of Shaharit, the Kaddish Shalem. The rabbi and I sang it at breakneck pace, according to custom, and then began the Torah service without a moment's pause. The Ark was opened, and I could feel the mood of the congregation, now standing, change from sleepy and expectant to alert and exuberant. A man and a woman removed the scrolls and embraced them to their hearts as I chanted the lines heralding their appearance. We turned to face the Ark and, a little louder than before, I led the Shema, proclaiming that God was in this place right now. I ignored the cantor's injunction not to imitate him. A little drama in my voice seemed appropriate, since no one in the universe was luckier than I was at that moment--I was God's MC. Nothing could beat that.

The people and Torahs began their procession around the church, and everyone pressed into the ends of the pews to reach and kiss the passing scrolls with the fringes of their tallitot or corners of their prayer books. Years before, when we had services at the massive Christian Science church and I sang way up in the balcony with the choir, I'd race down a flight of marble steps and jostle for a spot in the crowd as soon as the Ark was opened. I was superstitious; on this day, especially, I needed to get as close to that parchment as possible.

Now, from up front, all the people looked like filings drawn to a traveling magnet, waves of them advancing and retreating as the parade moved past each aisle. For the first time ever, I wasn't part of that rush--the scrolls would come back to me, and I would get to touch them with my tallit right before they were rolled opened on the bima for the Torah reading.

My part was now over. The reading began, and I went to find a seat with my friends in the choir. The choir director stopped me as I passed. She wasn't smiling--she looked almost agitated--and I got worried. Did I make some sort of huge mistake?

She gave me a big hug. "It's like you've been doing this all your life," she said, yelling over the music. "You have to do more." She was right; it felt, in a strange way, like I was supposed to be up there.

I tried to pay attention to the reading and sermon, but was still floating somewhere above the dome of the church. Midway though the service, an elderly man on his way up to the bima for an aliyah tripped and hit his head on a step, and fell down unconscious. The paramedics, stationed right in front of the church along with a large cadre of burly Israeli security guards, appeared instantly and hovered for many minutes as the service came to a halt. The rabbi asked us all to sing a niggun to help him heal. So we did, 1,200 people humming a soft tune as the paramedics put the man, who had come to and seemed OK, on a gurney and took him out of the church.

The service resumed, and the rabbi announced the scrolls' impending return to the Ark. I suddenly remembered that my part was, in fact, not over. (I now have many big notes in my machzor like: "DON'T SIT, THERE'S MORE!!"). I jumped up and ran back to the bima, and watched the procession once again circle the aisles so that we could bid farewell to the scrolls. I sang the sad, hopeful melody of Etz Chayim:

It is a tree of life for those who grasp it...
Its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace

Help us turn to You, and we shall return
Renew our lives as in days of old.

The next and longest part of the service was Musaf, led by a young rabbi who was a member of the congregation. She had a beautiful and expressive voice, but had problems staying on key. I imagined some uncomfortable last-minute phone calls between she and the cantor and now understood why I was asked to lead the Torah service, usually done by the Musaf shaliach.

Friday, September 23, 2005

178. HaMelech

(Before I continue and, eventually, conclude the story of last year, I must apologize to... myself. [And to my ten or so loyal readers.] I had hoped to write a lot more this past week before the next installment begins, but ended up working 18 hours a day. This is not an ideal way to live, oy, and I'm trying to figure out a solution.)

I don't remember very much, a year later, about what it felt like to lead services on the first day of Rosh Hashonah. I think I was so intent upon using every possible store of my of brains and breath, so aware that I was enacting, for real, the adage "from your mouth to God's ears," that I had no capacity left to acquire memory. I felt responsible to a thousand people and tried as hard as humanly possible to pray on their behalf. It took an awful lot of energy.

I was grateful for the intensity of the rabbi at my side. Her strength reminded me of standing on the edge of a cliff below an expansive sky; I might feel the wind and gasp, and think I was flying, but I still knew that rock and solid ground were beneath my feet. There was enough power in her presence to fuel us both and probably the first few rows of people, as well.

I do remember the HaMelech section of the Amidah, a one-line meditation on the phrase "the King." During practice I realized I could get carried away and do a bad impression of an opera singer, and so I concentrated on singing simply and cleanly. I tried to envision God as a sovereign--as the golden light through the stained glass windows of the church at my favorite time of Shabbat morning, right at the beginning of Musaf--as the subject of a triumphant early English psalm setting I had performed years before which imitated the sounds of ceremonial horns and asked, over and over again, "Who is the King of Glory?" As I sang HaMelech I imagined I was a servant talking to that magisterial figure in the clouds, a metaphor that finally made sense to me.

I shut my eyes for an instant, and then decided to keep them closed. In my a cappella days I knew a guy who always assumed a a beatific, somnolent expression when on stage: yes, I so enjoy hearing my own voice that looking at you, the audience, is a needless distraction. I (and many others) found his habit self-indulgent and insincere. It seemed disrespectful to ignore the very people who were listening to you. But in that moment of HaMelech I understood that concentrating on anyone but God would be a disservice to those in whose names I prayed. I had been carefully tracing each line in the machzor with my finger, and wondered if I would lose my bearings when I finally opened my eyes. But even in the dark I felt connected and safe.


Tomorrow at midnight is the service of Selihot, when we hear the High Holiday nusach for the first time this season and officially begin the marathon of prayer and discovery that continues for another four weeks, until the end of Simchat Torah. (And if I'm still not convinced that the holidays are starting, four rehearsals next week will get me in the mood.) On Selihot, explained the rabbi, the gates of heaven are open to their widest. Just as we might imagine God watching us from those gates, we should also look at ourselves from the same perspective. If we had God's view, what would we think?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

177. Blaze of glory

(Back to the story.)

So I greeted everyone in the Secret Rabbi Room, church version (the one with the feather boa on the shelf). I put on my tallit, and the rabbi and I walked out front. Going through my head was: who would have imagined. Life is strange and wonderful. I was quite calm, my nerves probably still home in bed and exhausted from the workout of those three Shabbat mornings.

The sanctuary, even at 9AM, held a few hundred people. I placed my own machzor on the bima, and saw that someone had thoughtfully put another there for me, as well. I picked it up and, without looking, moved it to the little shelf hidden inside the podium.

I had no idea that another considerate person had also placed a glass of water on the shelf.

I watched the glass tip over as if in slow motion, and the water flow down the side of the bima, over my feet, and towards the wires that snaked out from the microphone. I suddenly envisioned a blaze of glory, rivaling that of the burning bush, enveloping us all as I electrocuted the entire congregation during my first act as hazzanit on Rosh Hashonah. They probably wouldn't ask me to lead services again after that. I didn't panic because I think I entered a state of shock. I reached inside the podium for a tissue--the mysterious bima elves had thought of everything--but it was too late. The water dripped down my ankles and lapped up around at the base of the microphone. The rabbi to my right kept singing--"...hareni mikabelet alai...," " your neighbor like yourself"-- unaware that our bima might soon be the site of a very uncharitable act.

But nothing happened. After a few moments I realized we would all continue to live for at least a little while longer, and so I started to breathe and sing.


On a different topic, this blog led me, again, to a very interesting couple of pages that described exactly what my rabbi taught at last week's class.

Monday, September 19, 2005

176. Grace

On Sunday some friends and I went to an Episcopal Mass at a church renowned for its Renaissance music as well as its ancient, ornate interior, which looks like 16th century Germany was transported to the Upper West Side. It's right next door to the Methodist church where my synagogue often meets, and where I'll be leading on the holidays. (Rounding out the block is a bank and a Gap, for those who choose to worship other gods.)

I felt lucky to have a second opportunity this week to hear beautiful sounds on a Sabbath day, this time Bach and Palestrina instead of their Ashkenazic and Sephardic counterparts. I hadn't been to a Mass in quite awhile but was struck, once again, by the many similarities between that service and the Jewish version. They quoted the Golden Rule, as we do every morning. They read from Psalm 145, which makes up most of the Ashrei prayer. The priest chanted scripture and began his sermon with words from Deuteronomy that are part of the Shema. Incense was in the air, just like the besamim (spices) at the end of every Shabbat. And the choir performed Sanctus, word for word also part of the Amidah, the central prayer of every Jewish service. I had sung those words in Latin hundreds of times, with various choirs in churches all over New York and (with my college choir) in Europe, before I knew they were part of my own tradition. Orthodox Hebrew schools aren't big on translation, especially when it might highlight similarities between themselves and Episcopalians and Catholics. For years I helped create such music, was moved emotionally and spiritually, and felt guilty. Not until relatively recently did I really get that Bach's God and mine were the same, once you were past the details.

The Episcopal service was also, like ours, extremely long. (I trust that the time flew by for those actually praying, as it does for me on Shabbat). And the reading was from Jonah--exactly what we study on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. The priest's sermon could have easily been given in a synagogue, except for the references to Matthew (and I wouldn't put that past one of my rabbis, either). Jonah, at first, didn't want to participate in the redemption of the city of Nineveh. But God believes in second chances, in new beginnings. The message is the same as ours on the Yamim Nora'im. The Christian word for all this, as I understand it, is grace; for some reason Jews avoid the term. But I think what we mean is similar.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

175. Path, part 2


We look not only towards our own words as a vehicle for change, continued the rabbi, but also to the words of the High Holiday liturgy. But they're archaic and require deep digging, as is the case with so much of Torah and prayers. Last week's parasha, for example, featured a list of laws, abhorrent to today's ears, about women as property, and the injunction that a "wayward and defiant son" be stoned. I learned yesterday that this last one has been read as a cautionary tale, written so we may "study it and receive reward" with the understanding that it has never happened and never will. To kill a child in the flush of adolescent rebellion would mean that we allow no possibility for change, which runs counter to everything else our tradition teaches. The ancient sages found these words troubling--but couldn't ignore them. They instead examined every possible angle of meaning until they were able to formulate an interpretation that made sense.

Are we supposed to do this with the frightening list of ways to die in the Unetane Tokef, or the dry legal formula of the Kol Nidre? And if we don't, how can we be transformed by these words? Parsing their true intent or emotional resonance at the moment we say them is like trying to find poetry in the phone book. The effort doesn't seem worth it. But, said the rabbi, music makes up for everything we don't understand. The music of the Yamim Nora'im, the Days of Awe, is like a hand that grabs us in a place where we have no language.

I'm continually amazed by the rabbis' and cantor's mastery at tapping into this wordless river. From up front they share their own total immersion in the sounds of the prayers, clapping and swaying and pounding the bima while leading us, by example, to deep and marvelous places. And yet their ecstasy is low-key, never drawing undue attention to themselves. The focus is completely on the congregation and our journey. I don't understand how they do it. I feel so self-centered at this time of year; I have to keep reminding myself that my involvement in the service is fleeting, and standing up there is in no way about me. I can barely contemplate my own path, let alone help anyone else with theirs. But I still need to appear confident. Leading services feels like one of the biggest reponsibilities I've ever had, equal to my obligations to family and friends. My work life, at which I spend far, far too much time, seems especially trivial during these weeks. (That's where I most miss the mark, the literal translation of "chet," otherwise known as sin. I have to do better at both surviving and really living at the same time.)

And I also have to stay focused on the rest of life and not drown, prematurely, in this music. I could have happily listened to it all year long, over and over again, but I knew I had to leave it for Elul.

There's an electricity in the air, the intoxication of honesty, during these weeks before the holidays. Rosh Hashonah is like standing on a threshold with a bunch of people shoving me gently into a new room. I never feel alone, especially now that I spend so much of the holiday looking out at and singing with these same people.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

174. Path, part 1

At a class the other night we talked about cheshbon hanefesh, "accounting of the soul," a discipline embraced by 18th century Hasids and often expressed today through Mussar, a contemplative practice focused on behavior and ethics. ("Cheshbon" is a practical concept. In modern Hebrew the word means "Check, please!" or "I need to go over my records with the tax attorney.") Throughout the year, but especially during the month of Elul, the Hassidic masters methodically and painstakingly analyzed their own shortcomings and then devised, with the help of friends if necessary, a plan for improvement. All this hundreds of years before Freud. "Elul is really just one big couch," said the rabbi. Like therapy, this kind of self-exploration requires the courage to speak from a place of pain and to admit, out loud, where we've fall off the path that is ours alone, the path closest to our essence. Those words can have the power to change us, once we find the strength to utter them. So "The Lord is One," from the Shema, can mean that you have to be unique to be closer to God. Be yourself.

And if you don't, he said--if you veer off that path--there's always hope, always opportunity for change and growth. But we have to start with ourselves before we can presume to change the rest of the world.

It's unfortunate, he added, that religion these days so often implies religious behaviorism. Following rules is paramount; the emotional development that was once the foundation of these rules is often forgotten. Rosh Hashonah is not just about the birthday of the world, but the birthday of us, individually--the rediscovery of the direction we were each meant to follow, and the tachlis, the nuts and bolts, of a spiritual partnership that will help us do so. He challenged us to be like the early Hasids and make a list of what we need work on in order to become the best of ourselves that we can be, and another of practical ways to attain these goals. A friend later suggested a third column: what we think has been stopping us, all along, from following a path we know we know to be the right one.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

173. El Nora Alilah

One of the prayers in the Ne'ila service is a Sephardic song called "El Nora Alilah, " translated in the machzor as "Awesome God, let us live; forgive." The first verses plead from the gut:

Our merits few, we look to You.
The gates are closing.

In spite of sin, again help us begin.
The gates are closing.

The author is a little more positive at the end:

Let joy, not strife, embrace our life.
The gates are closing.

Redemption bring, that we may sing,
Though the gates are closing.

It's hard to hear any emotion in these square, dull English rhymes. The Hebrew, however, is a tongue-twister; I would love to find a literal translation. And the music--not a dirge, as the words would suggest, but rather peasants in a Breughel painting dancing with casks of ale. The gazelle from the Song of Songs cajoling, teasing and leaping with her lover. What happens when the dead reach heaven. The melody, of Spanish origin, is simple, repetitive, and drunken: save me now, I can't wait any longer. I've been knocking at the gate all day long, and there's only one more hour left. I need you, I need you.

I hope to live for a very long time, but should I ever know that those last hours are drawing near I will demand track 4 on my iPod, to which I listened yesterday about fifty times. I was at the service last year where the recording of this song was made. The voices of the rabbi and cantor were raw and a little hysterical, as if everything extraneous or hidden had been burnt away. I was so tired from a day of fasting, and five hours in front of the congregation with a fever (but I'll get to that part soon), that it all just swept by. I get it now. I hope I can approach those gates, and the rest of my life, with the the same honesty, chutzpah, and unbound joy as in this music.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

172. Today

Finishing this story will have to wait a little longer; I'm now firmly ensconced in the next chapter. The cantor called today to say, oh, by the way, can you come to a rehearsal tomorrow? Of music you haven't yet learned? The instrumentalists (it's their first rehearsal, too) happen to all be available. I listened to the CD of the Ne'ila service this afternoon, and was relieved to discover that my memory had been accurate. The prayers are all the same, except for some stuff at the end that I really should know but don't (yet). The nusach, the melodic pattern, is slow, plaintive, and insistent--please, keep those gates open a little while longer!--and completely opposite to the hopeful and joyous tone of those same words sung during the morning service. This nusach is also, thank goodness, much easier to learn and memorize than the Shaharit version. (It has to be. One sings it at the conclusion of a 24-hour fast.) So instead of writing some more, this evening, I'll be listening to the cantor sing Yom Kippur into my headphones over and over and over again.

Monday, September 12, 2005

171. The first day

(Continuing. And now, the parts, probably very anticlimactic, that I've been leading up to for eight months.)

I was ready. Everything was set; I had places to go for holiday meals, and all the right clothing. And I knew the music inside out.

Once again I woke up very early, rowed, did some vocal warm-ups, and spent a long time getting dressed so that I wouldn't forget to put on shoes, or something equally ridiculous, in the face of nervous haste. I also wanted to savor every moment of this experience. I walked the 20 blocks to the church, humming my part. I was calm; in many ways this would be easier than leading Shabbat morning services, since it was carefully scripted. I knew exactly what I had to do, and the rotations within each prayer were planned.


In other news, I just learned today that I will, in fact, be leading another part of the service that I don't yet know: Ne'ila, the end of Yom Kippur, when the gates symbolically close (sort of--tradition says that we have until Hoshanah Rabah, another holiday two weeks later, before that final page of the Book is irrevocably typeset). I'll pick up a CD tomorrow from the cantor and start learning, quickly. It's not as long as Shaharit and many of the prayers are the same, with one or two additions. But I think most of the melodies are different, and much more dramatic than the morning service. I am honored beyond words to have been asked to do this. And very nervous.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

170. Yahrzeit

(On a different topic.)

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina awakened past nightmares, and I've been dreading today's anniversary almost as much as I did the one on Sept.11, 2002. That first year was spent holidng my breath, waiting for the yahrzeit to come and go. Partly I was convinced, in some magical, irrational way, that one day I would wake up in a world where it didn't happen, so why go through all the bother of believing it did? For months I suspected my eyes and ears had been lying, even though I had smelled the smoke in the air and watched endlessly looping images on TV of the pain of my neighbors. On that first anniversary, the eternal present moment of that day finally changed into the past as I looked at the empty sky down Sixth Avenue and accepted that the gap in the skyline was still my skyline, and my New York.

9/11/01 fell between Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. I was in the choir, and the rabbis explained that on this Yom Kippur we would forego the usual somber, reflective mood and focus instead on the joy of being with our community--of being anywhere--and of simply having the privilege of a second chance. There would be no instruments, which seemed inappropriate in the face of death, so the choir's task of optimistic consolation would be doubly important. I tried. I thought about how glad I was to be alive, and sang at the top of my lungs. But I also packed my cell phone and planned escape routes (down the back stairs of the church), just in case.

The weather this afternoon is almost the same as on that other day. But it's a little warmer, and the sky isn't as blue. I carry with me a snapshot of an 8AM Tuesday run in the park, watching clouds that looked like cotton through leaves still green and robust and thinking: What a glorious month this will be! As each subsequent Sept. 11 brings different weather, sometimes rain, or trees already brown and brittle, I find it easier to focus on the early hope of that day rather than on what followed. But I'm also afraid to forget. On 9/11/01 I was in the honeymoon flush of my re-acquaintance with Judaism. My world was a newly beautiful place, and it was quite a shock to be reminded that God was responsible for the bad as well as the good. I considered abandoning the whole exercise; I couldn't listen to music for months afterwards, which was just too beautiful and seemed offensive in a world so ugly. Eventually I remembered that very much of life had always been ugly, but my eyes had been conveniently closed. For too long, complacent and full of my own good fortune, I had pushed aside the truth of the suffering of others. If I become numb to the horror of what happened, if I let that day recede fully into memory, I'm afraid I will again forget my responsibility to this world.

Last year Sept. 11 fell out on the holiday of Selichot, so our prayers were codified and expected. This lessened their impact on me; we mourned, but in a prescibed setting. Tonight there will be a memorial service in partnership with the church whose building we use for services, just like on that first anniversary. I look forward to remembering, and being sad.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

169. Almost ready

(So, as I was saying...)

We had one final High Holiday rehearsal, the first that included a rabbi and the cantor. It was at 3 o'clock on a Friday, a bad idea; everyone was in a rush to get home and prepare for Shabbat. So we performed the Cliff's Notes version of Shaharit, which was fine with me. I knew it inside out by now. The instrumentalists were ready to pack up and go home when I reminded them that I'd never rehearsed the Torah service, which I would lead in less than a week.

So we ran through it very quickly, skipping the easy parts, until we got to the prayer that accompanies the return of the scrolls to the Ark. The cantor had decided a few days earlier to set half of it to a niggun, a wordless melody, and use the traditional weekday morning tune for the rest. I barely knew that tune, however, and the words of the prayer didn't quite fit to the rhythm of the niggun. I had tried in vain the day before to master this complicated pastiche, and hoped that the sound of the instruments would get it into my ear. But a better study aid soon materialized: the cantor himself, who came up front and stood next to me without saying a word. The band began to play and we both started to sing, myself a bit softer and a millisecond behind as I tried to shadow his notes. I, too, was speechless; this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, since the cantor stands at the bima only on the High Holidays and an occasional minor holiday or Yizkor (memorial) service. The purpose of his singing that afternoon was to teach, and with each note that propped me up came the silent transmission, like an electric current, of gentle instructions from a lifetime of music, emotion, and the experience of acting as God's most modest messenger. We were at the bima for just a few minutes, but at the end I was dizzy from such close exposure to a force of energy that brought thousands of people closer to heaven each time the cantor opened his mouth.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

168. Responsibility

I don't usually quote people other than myself in this blog, but I just read this powerful commentary on this week's parasha, Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9), by Dr. Ismar Schorsch, outgoing Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, which says what I think much better than I ever could. (I'm on their mailing list.) Some excerpts, kind of long but worth reading:


Rabbi Hananiah, the Deputy High Priest, taught: "Pray for the welfare of the government, for if people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive" (Pirkei Avot 3:2). His sage counsel bespoke bitter experience. He was an eyewitness to the misguided rebellion against Rome by Judea in 66 CE with its catastrophic results: the taking of 97,000 prisoners and of 1,100,000 lives and the razing of Jerusalem and its Temple...

The past two weeks, the words of R. Hananiah have been very much on my mind as I watched in horror with all Americans the unraveling of law and order in the murky waters of New Orleans. Among the impoverished masses temporarily trapped and abandoned, panic, desperation, greed, and lust converged to erupt in repeated outbursts of raw violence. The inattention and unpreparedness of the federal government for a cataclysm long known to be waiting to happen exposed again a largely stratified society, where individual freedom continues to run roughshod over a fair measure of equality for all. A viable democracy cannot survive on either pillar alone. In the months ahead, investigative commissions without number will seek to plot missteps, assign blame, and propose initiatives. But how will politicians, for whom winning is everything, cleanse themselves collectively of guilt where no one is directly culpable? How do we spiritually atone for the stain left on our body politic by Katrina's assault?

This week's parashah, which takes up the contours of good governance, among other subjects, actually addresses the issue with an exotic proposal. What is to be done with the discovery of a slain corpse in an open field when no one has any notion as to who might have committed the crime? In a rural society with minimal security between villages, such cases must have not been rare.

The Torah prescribes a ritual of atonement. The unpunished murder of a stranger polluted the land. When Cain killed his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy, God accused him: "What have you done? Hark, your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground" (Genesis 4:10). Without justice being done, Abel's innocent blood would defile the land. Deuteronomy returns to the case. The earth must be cleansed of bloodguilt in a public ceremony whose awesomeness might just induce the culprit or an accomplice to step forward.

The elders and magistrates from the town nearest the corpse are to take a heifer that has never been yoked or worked. At a wadi that never runs dry, they are to break its neck from the back... At which point the elders are required to declare publicly that they were not party to the crime either as perpetrators or bystanders: "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done" (21:7).

The Mishnah elaborates. Is it conceivable that we might suspect a court of law of committing murder? Hardly. The intent of the confession is to exonerate the elders of facilitating the travesty by their indifference. "We did not send him away without provisions nor let him go unaccompanied" (Sotah 9:6). That is, we know the victim; he approached us and we did help him. We do not bear even an indirect responsibility for his death. Only then can the elders complete this rite of purgation by beseeching God to absolve "Your people Israel whom You redeemed and do not let guilt for blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel" (21:8).

...[A]ll the parts contribute to the message of the whole. Though not directly responsible, the elders lament the loss of life with all its promise. The crime has not only desecrated the image of God imprinted in every human soul, but also diminished the capacity of society to sustain itself. The ritual cleanses because it forces conscience to the fore. Without remorse, there can be no forgiveness.

I have often wondered if office holders should not be made to undergo a rite of purification when the public suspects their culpability. Not an investigation in which they exercise their right to defend their actions, but a sacred setting in which they might give voice to their feelings of remorse and sense of fallibility. Their oath of office, taken on a Bible, implies a duty to God as well as society. An occasional confession in the house of worship of their choice might even reinforce the sanctity of their public trust. It certainly would give authority a more human face...

...Office holders are accountable to God as well as to their constituencies, otherwise they would not swear on Scripture. And for God, humility has always been one of the qualifications of leadership. Moses looms as the greatest of ancient Israel's leaders because in part at least he was also the humblest of men (Numbers 12:3).

Shabbat shalom,
Ismar Schorsch

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

167. Yom Kippur

(Another detour.)

As a kid I got Christmas presents just like my friends. There no was religion attached to this ritual, my mother's nod to the prevailing culture, but I did believe that Santa consulted his big list of naughty and nice to decide if I merited a bicycle. I later realized that God's judgment on Yom Kippur was not much different from Santa's, except the punishment was far worse than a lump of coal. The image that comes to mind for most Jews is of a big man with a white beard sitting in the clouds and writing, with indelible ink, in his enormous Book of Life. Good = you get to stick around for another year. Bad = death, suffering, IRS audit, etc.

The liturgy of the day is also filled with scary anthropomorphic metaphors. The Unetane Tokef prayer lists the many horrible ways we might pay for our sins, if God so chooses, including death by fire, water, hunger, thirst, beasts, earthquake, plague, strangling, or stoning. But there's hope: "Penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree." During the part of my life when I crawled into the back row of the synagogue once a year and counted the minutes to lunch, I was never bothered by this language. I knew I didn't merit any of those awful fates and, besides, the man in the white beard probably couldn't see me from so far away. But the more I learned about Judaism and, paradoxically, the less relevant these images became to my belief system, the more frightened I got. There's no hiding from a God Who's in all of us, in every part of our being and conscience, and no pretending that the little hurts, multiplied over a lifetime, are any less painful than murder. For good reason is Elul called the month of mercy. God knows this is a scary time, and is particularly receptive to our cry.

At a class tonight, we talked about the annual cycle of holidays as a human drama. From the redemption of Passover to the 17th of Tammuz, when Moses smashed he first set of tablets in anger and frustration, and from the hope of the new moon of Rosh Hashonah to the joy of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the Jewish calendar mirrors our own relationships. (No wonder so many Jews become psychiatrists. We've had practice thinking about this stuff all our lives.) We transgress, we despair, we are forgiven, we embrace in joy and love, and then, with respect to the holidays as well as to our own lives, we begin the cycle all over again. To envision God down here on Earth with us all is to acknowledge God as a player in this drama. To ask forgiveness of our fellow humans is to make amends with God. Parashat Emor (Leviticus 23:29), says that those who forget Yom Kippur will be cut off from the community, a fate worse than death. To need each other is to need God.

So in answer to the question posed after my last post: to the best of my limited understanding, the Jewish version is that God's plan is written, on Yom Kippur in the big Book of Life, for us as individuals. But that also means it's for everybody, because our lives are intertwined. God has set things up so that my small choice, somehow, some day, will ultimately affect you, and all others, and God Himself.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

166. Third time

The cantor called later that week and asked me to lead on yet another Shabbat morning. I wondered if he and the rabbis talked amongst themselves: well, let's keep trying and maybe, eventually, she'll calm down.

The day arrived and, sure enough, I became a wreck the minute I stepped into that little room. "Relax!" said one of the rabbis, with a smile. "You're about to talk to God!"

Right, no pressure there. "I think God is making me nervous," I observed. Everyone seemed to find this comment much funnier than I did.

But this third time was different. I was confident. I looked out at the congregation and noticed peoples' faces, saw them smiling, reacting, thinking. Each of the rabbis with whom I led had exuded a different kind of energy; the first was warm and steady, the second strong and direct. Standing next to this rabbi, a woman, felt like a cool, swirling breeze around a tall and stately tree. With all three I felt completely safe and sheltered, although I couldn't have been more exposed.

I read Torah that morning as well, returning to the bima just a few minutes after I finished the service. All that focus and concentration was exhausting, but very good practice for the real, much longer event. At the end people I didn't know came over and shook my hand, calling me by the name of the new and as yet rarely glimpsed rabbinic fellow, whom they figured I had to be. I was very flattered and flustered.


This Sunday was the beginning of Elul, the month of reflection that immediately precedes Rosh Hashonah. Rosh Hashonah, the first day of the seventh month and "the birthday of the world" (also the title of an excellent CD) is only one of a bunch of new years in the Jewish calendar: Passover marks the first month of the year and the arrival of spring, and Tu b'Shevat, the 15th of Shevat, is the new year for trees. (I love that trees get their very own occasion to party.) Rosh Hashonah represents when the universe came into being and also begins the countdown to Yom Kippur, the day that God's plan for us for the coming year is determined. Taken literally, it's a frightening concept. What all this means is that those ten days, and the month before, is a time of teshuvah--turning--when we try to right any wrongs we may have committed and consider a different path for the future. Thanks to this blog, I discovered a wonderful site (part of an excellent guide to Jewish customs and practice) that offers a week-by-week plan of how to think about teshuvah. I hope I'm able to do a better job at it this year than in the past.

Monday, September 05, 2005

165. Second time

With the help of online stores and a trip to to Boston, where people dress in colors, I exceeded the narrow limits of my disposable income and bought a Flax skirt and pants and a purple silk blouse that I would wear on Rosh Hashonah with, gratefully, a black skirt. I also found a pair of cool hemp clogs and some white canvas sandals. Then I discovered a couple of pre-Labor Day sales, and soon owned far too many items of white clothing than were necessary for just one day. But I kept hearing a little voice, sounding suspiciously like my mother's, reminding me that you never know, and better safe than sorry. What this really meant I had no idea, but was driven to oversupply with the same compulsion that had led my mother to pack twelve extra sweaters every time we left the house.

I had another rehearsal with the cantor's brother, joined this time by the rest of the band. I loved the delicately insistent sound of the oud as it voiced the chords preceding each chatima (the last lines of the prayer, the "seal," that I would sing alone).

The following Shabbat, after another rowing machine session of deep breathing, I helped lead morning services for the second time. Pavlov was right; I started shaking the minute I walked into the Secret Rabbi Room, even though the rational part of my brain kept telling me I would do just fine. The rabbi, a different one than the first time, still hadn't arrived by 9:29 for the 9:30 service, but I now knew to trust the calendar. It really was Saturday morning, and--I was almost afraid to admit--everything would be OK. The cantor walked in and asked about my Torah reading the week before, when he was away on vacation. I could barely remember; chanting suddenly seemed so much easier in comparison. "Well," he said, "you can do the whole thing if they don't show up, right?" I didn't find this joke terribly funny.

The rabbi did arrive, of course, with an entire 45 seconds to spare. As before, I could feel energy like a strong gust of wind radiating from his side of the bima. It almost knocked me over, as if God had stopped by to give me a bear hug. I remembered to breathe, mostly, and we traded verses and sang harmonies. I even took the initiative and started a few prayers. It was enormous fun.

Afterwards the rabbi sent me an email filled with exclamation points, telling me how great I did. I knew I wasn't really that superb, but it was a very, very much appreciated exaggeration.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

164. Fashion


So I picked up another CD from the cantor and began to learn the Torah service. It was short and not difficult, and I ceased panicking. It's usually done by the person leading Musaf, the long afternoon service that immediately follows; I wondered why that wasn't the case this time.

Meanwhile, I was struggling a bit obsessively with another issue: what to wear. I'm not a clothes horse, although I used to care a lot more about that stuff during the days when I worked in an actual office with other self-described hip, cool design industry people. Those outfits are long gone, replaced, now that I sit from dawn to dusk at a little desk in the corner of my kitchen, by sweatpants with holes in embarrassing places. But I wanted to look nice for those thousand people. I could wear anything, really--at my synagogue there are as many levels of individuality in attire as in opinion. Nor, in a shocking departure from the culture of most congregations, does anyone care about what you spent on your shoes. In any case, not much of me would be visible; my shoulders would be covered with a tallit, and everything below hidden behind the bima.

But one of the remnants of my childhood brand of Judaism was the injunction to dress up on holidays. Not the fashion show kind of dressy, but the "hiddur mitzvah" sort--clothing to beautify the day, and honor those in front of whom I would stand. I also noticed that everyone who led services followed the custom of wearing white on Yom Kippur, which I did when I sang with the choir a few years back. Since I'm a New Yorker and 98% of my wardrobe is black, as is our particular custom, this presented a practical as well as ideological challenge.

If I were to take that sartorial leap, I wanted the white to be meaningful. No polyester; I would try to find "eco-kosher" materials, less likely to have harmed the environment or caused grief to people in foreign sweatshops. Because white was not in style or stores last summer (unlike this year, when we seem to be re-living the 70s and the city is full of tiny tank tops paired with flowing peasant skirts), I scoured the Internet, Googling "white clothing" and "natural" for hours at a time. The rabbis wore kittels on Yom Kippur, simple white garments that evoke burial shrouds and remind us of our mortality and humility. (The custom hasn't caught on with many women, maybe because kittels look like ugly bathrobes.) I also grew up wearing, for those same reasons, non-leather shoes on the High Holidays. For my father and most men, this meant canvas Keds more appropriate to the proprietor of a Good Humor truck.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

163. See

We mourned at services last night. There was no dancing, although we sang and the rabbis drummed as if their souls were being freed through their hands. They read from Psalm 69:

Deliver me, God, for the waters have reached my soul.
I am sunk in muddy depths without foothold;
I have come into deep waters and a whirlpool has swept me away.
I am weary with crying, my throat is parched,
my eyes grow dim as I wait for my God.
More than the number of hairs on my head are those who hate me without cause;
mighty are those who want to cut me off...

Rescue me from the mire and let me not sink;
let me be rescued from my enemies and from the depths of the water,
nor let the deep swallow me;
and let not the pit close its mouth on me.
Answer me, Adonai, for your kindness is good;
according to the abundance of your mercy turn to me.
And hide not your face from your servant,
for I am in distress,
speedily answer me.

This week's parasha is R'eih: "See." See, this day I set before you blessing and curse. Many prayers and parshiot, said the rabbi, begin with the command to "speak" or "hear" ("Shema, Yisrael..."). But now we're told to look. We can't turn away. With an immediacy unique to our generation, we witnessed images of horror and tragedy this past week that resulted, in great measure, from our refusal to see--that wetlands and barrier islands were being destroyed; that the levees of New Orleans would surely fail in a major hurricane.

Psalm 69 is an entreaty to God. But God, said the rabbi, offers a psalm to us as well, a plea to look at at the faces of those in pain. If we choose to see, perhaps blessing rather than curse will be our lot.

Friday, September 02, 2005

162. Good and bad


Someone asked, on another online forum where I hang out, what I thought was God's role in the world, especially in light of Hurricane Katrina. A friend and reader of this blog suggested I post my answer here. I'm not sure this says it exactly, but trying to distill my belief system into a few sentences was a good exercise:

"Wow, that's a big question. I've been thinking about it a lot over the past few years, and am not really able to articulate my own personal theology, but here goes anyway. I guess I believe that God is in all of us, all the time. (Sometimes articulated in Jewish literature as "we are all holy beings"). I can't even pretend to define my own understanding of God in any more depth. That good and bad things happen have nothing to do with any reward or punishment from God. They just happen. That's life--and God. I recently read, somewhere, that all cultures have a concept of "right" and "wrong"--this seems to be a universal human understanding. I believe that our predilection as human beings is to seek the good, which is why we are compelled to form communities and live together--if not, we would still be in a state of chaos, without any concept of cooperation or society. And I belive that our following the "good" impulse is God's intention for us. But the "bad"--war, killing, software piracy, etc.--is also part of us, as well. And is as equally God's doing as the good. Our task as humans is to learn to distinguish one from the other, and try to make this world as fair and pleasant a place for all people and creatures to live in, which shows respect for and honors the holiness in each of us."


In other news, the cantor called yesterday. (I am, without fail, always on another line when he calls. I get very flustered and have to put him on hold while I get rid of the other person, whose business, no matter what it is, will never be more important than the cantor's.) He asked if I could learn an additional service--either one whose melodies I already know, or one with different melodies. He'll decide soon. I hope "soon" means next week. Or sooner.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

161. Out of the picture

Later that week I got a call from the cantor.

"How do you feel about the Torah service?" he asked.

Well, it's really beautiful and I like it a lot... no, that's not what he meant. "I feel... fine," I answered. The Torah service centers around the Torah and haftarah readings, done by members of the congregation, and the rabbi's d'var Torah (sermon). This is sandwiched between some prayers and the dramatic and theatrical removal from and return to the Ark of the scrolls. The cantor's role is minimal, although kind of showy. It's the part of the service that Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids at my synagogue get to sing each week, and I had heard it a million times.

"I need you to do the Torah service, too," he said. "First day of Rosh Hashonah. Maybe Yom Kippur."

Well, sure. You're the boss, anything you want. No, that's not what I thought. In fact, I was instantaneously flooded with rolling waves of monumental doubt and panic. Not that I would ever say no, and on the flip side of my disbelief was near-hysterical joy at the chance to do more. But I also felt like someone had just pushed me into a sea of liturgy slightly deeper than my head.

"So I'll be leading Shaharit and the Torah service both of those days," I said, trying to sort it all out.

"No, Shaharit all three days," he said. "First day Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur at the church, second day Rosh Hashonah at the synagogue." This was news to me; the original plan was for only two mornings. I tried to remind myself that the cantor wouldn't have asked me to do this if he didn't think I could, but his track record in that respect was no longer perfect--the pop singer, I learned, was out of the picture.


On another topic, I just read this post in Barefoot Jewess' blog. I was saddened by her eloquent description of why she, and so many American Jews, feel increasingly alienated. And it reminded me, once again, how lucky I am to have found the community I've been writing about.