Sunday, October 30, 2005

206. Entitled

(Continued. I also must acknowledge that I'm suffering from holiday burnout... four weeks of two of these per week, followed by Shabbat, has taken its toll. Now, don't get me wrong--I loved it, every minute of every endless meal and Amidah. But the Tuesday/Wednesday business was a bit much, and I agree wholeheartedly with this blogger. For the next week or so I'll probably not post extensively, since I need to spend a bunch of time resting/catching up on work/remembering what my brain does when it's not praying/otherwise pursuing real life.)


By the following Simchat Torah I understood more about why we danced in celebration of those 80,000 fixed yet fluid words, words that changed to reflect how different we were each time we read them. I remember listening to Lech Lecha that first Saturday morning at my synagogue and thinking, what a great story! I can't wait to hear the rest. (I studied it in Hebrew School, and elsewhere in life, but only vaguely.) When we came around to reading Lech Lecha the following year I was sad, at first; I figured it would never seem as exciting as during my initial introduction. But I was wrong; the story took on new shapes and sounds, its mirror tilting in a completely different direction, because I knew more than I did a year before, had lived and seen more. As I held hands and flew in circles with my friends on Simchat Torah, I understood that we were dancing through the open door of the coming year. The people embracing the scrolls were just average, like myself, all of us not the best Jews in the word but similar in one respect: we wanted to read those words again. I was no longer afraid to hold the scroll, because I knew that my desire to learn gave me the right.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

205. Not entitled


The first time I ever wore a tallit, and the first time I held--or even touched--a sefer Torah was on Simchat Torah, four or five years ago. I had danced, awkwardly and self-consciously, a little bit during the previous Simchat Torah. But I never went near the scroll, the holiest of objects, because I didn't think I had the right. I hadn't been a very good Jew, hadn't really cared about any of this stuff for years, and had only the vaguest idea about what was going on. Standing close to a Torah, let alone waving it in the air for all to see, didn't seem like an honor worthy of someone so ignorant.

Friday, October 28, 2005

204. Surprise

(I have more to say about Simchat Torah, but interrupting myself.)

Yesterday evening I emailed the cantor about reading Torah in November. He emailed back with some verses, and at the very bottom:

"By the way, can you lead services tomorrow?"

Well, let's see, let me check my calendar... I responded, needless to say, in the affirmative. I hadn't been asked to lead on a Friday night since late April, which didn't really mean anything; I spent May recovering from surgery, and over the summer there was just one service with more than enough rabbis to go around. I had nevertheless convinced myself I wouldn't be asked again. Never mind that I just led for the High Holy Days. A corner of my brain resembling chipped china held together by peeling beads of Super Glue, the irrational, insecure part, swears very loudly on some days that I have no right to be up there. My voice isn't good enough, or I'm singing too aggressively. No, I should be less aggressive. I could go on and on. People tell me I sound beautiful, that my praying moves them, and I don't believe a word they say while also wanting to hear it a million times more, because I know they're right. It's very confusing.

That praying and singing in front of my congregation is one of the best ways I've found to feel close to God, I have no doubt. But I never know when or if this gift will appear, and when it does I'm afraid I'll screw up and ruin my chances for the future. Shabbat is a taste of eternity, but it arrives without fail every week whether or not we fell short of the mark. Helping lead services is my occasional, random, and extraordinary lucky ascent to a place so much higher than real life, so much fun, that even as I'm there I become sad for when it must end and wonder if I will again be invited. I'm annoyed at myself for dwelling on potential loss rather than current abundance. I want to become better at living life now, the moment it's happening.

Tonight was the first time I helped lead in the "new" arrangement, sitting in a circle with a bunch of musicians (cello, guitar, flutes, percussion) rather than standing at a bima. I could actually see them, rather than hear disembodied notes coming from somewhere behind, and could also hear the congregation in the packed sanctuary singing back. I led with the same rabbi I was with all day on Yom Kippur, with whose high, strong voice it's so easy to blend and harmonize. I got lost in the sounds we were creating. It was a blast.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

203. Dancing

I should really be asleep right now, but my body and brain can't stop moving.

Every year I doubt that the fun of the past Simchat Torah can be surpassed, and every year I'm wrong. Imagine the happiest wedding you've ever attended, and multiply by a thousand. The sanctuary was filled tonight, hundreds and hundreds of bodies linking into swirling eddies that moved like friendly tornadoes from one end of the room to the other. In the center of each circle was a sefer Torah, or two or three, held aloft or clutched to someone's heart as they jumped up and down and tried to raise it as high above the crowd as they could. I moved between rings of spinning dancers to chains of people with their hands on each other's shoulders who snaked past each deliriously rotating circle. Sometimes I felt like I was carried on a big human wave, and if I closed my eyes would keep gaining momentum until I took flight above the crowd. From the balcony we looked like an earthquake, unconstrained bodies bubbling to the rhythm of the keyboard and drums.

The rabbis were the most ecstatic of all, arms around each others' shoulders as they jumped, in love and joy, the highest of anyone.

I was going to leave after the fifth hakafa, but kept remembering that this was it, after tomorrow--time goes back to normal. I didn't want it to end just yet. To leave all those people and Torot when I could still stand in their midst and feel them dance around me seemed almost horrifying. So I stood off to the side, gathered my energy, and stayed thorough the Torah reading and last hakafa, the one for teenagers who were much more awake at that hour than the rest of us. Everyone kept dancing even after the service ended, the cantor in his funny shirt with the musical notes all over it singing niggunim as loudly as ever. I finally tore myself away, because I wanted to make sure I had enough energy to do it all over again tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

202. Hoshanah Rabbah

(Interrupting the story.)

Yesterday was Hoshanah Rabbah, the "great Hoshanah." After a final waving of the lulav and etrog, we circle the sanctuary seven times and chant, over and over again, "Hoshanah!" ("Please save us!"). Then, as a symbol of the separation of our sins from ourselves, among many other things, we beat the willow branches of our lulavim into the ground until their leaves fly off. We dance and sing with joy and relief as bits of green rain over our feet and pool onto the red floor of the sanctuary. The gates are finally, truly, closed. This custom seemed weird and pagan when I first learned about it a few years ago (my Hebrew School skipped over the whole plant-destroying thing). But with each season, and every time I listen for the crack of those branches as I strike them with all my power against the floor, I feel more and more emancipated from myself. Last year explodes into the air like dark confetti, and this new one becomes as eagerly anticipated as the hours of dancing soon to come. The ancient and psychologically astute rabbis who devised these holidays knew we needed to first live through the depths of Yom Kippur in order to fully understand the elation of Simchat Torah. The optimism of Sukkot and catharsis of Hoshanah Rabbah are rungs of a ladder that help us climb back up to our happiest and most hopeful ways of being.

Shemini Atzeret services are this morning, the eighth day of Sukkot and the holiday when we plead for rain to nourish and sustain us. (A confusing prayer, this year; water hasn't been very good to humankind these past months. And it's still pouring in New York.) Simchat Torah begins in the evening, with the verses that make me mute, followed by seven hakafot, circuits of dancing, until 10 or 11pm. (Some Orthodox shuls go all night long. Until 9/11, a mile of Upper West Side streets were closed off for the equivalent of a massive religious rave ten thousand strong. Tonight some congregations will venture outside for the first time in four years, but my synagogue will still opt for carpeting and warmth.) We go home for too little sleep before repeating the whole thing on Wednesday, and conclude after many, many hours with a Torah reading that connects Moshe's death at the end of Deuteronomy to the creation of the universe and first words of Genesis. The month of spiritual marathon ends, and our story begins anew.

Moadim l'simcha ("seasons of happiness"), and may your feet remain strong!

Monday, October 24, 2005

201. ...and the morning [part 2]...

"Did you hear what happened?" said my teacher to the rabbi, as we were all trying to figure out where to hang our wet coats. And then she turned to me. "Are you going to be gabbai sheni?"

Apparently the cantor and I were not the only ones in less than optimum health. One of the two Torah readers, a man who had been doing it every year on Yom Kippur for the past dozen, wrenched his back the night before and was unable to stand, let along hunch over a scroll. My teacher, who had learned High Holy Day trop when she was about twelve, was called into emergency service. So of course she could no longer fulfill her other role as second gabbai, following along with the reader to catch mistakes, since she now was the reader.

The rabbi hadn't planned to ask me, and was going to draft one of the student rabbis into service instead. "Do you want to do it?" she asked.

"Well, sure," I said. "I did it last year." True, last year I had more than a few minutes of warning, and was able to prepare for the occasion. But since then I had been gabbai sheni at the sunrise service of Shavuot, after staying up all night long in study. I was, in some strange, tentative way, starting to feel like an old hand at it.

"Terrific," said the rabbi. "So today we're all women here," she added. My synagogue is so egalitarian that no one ever seems to think about being egalitarian. This took some getting used to on my part, but once I did I couldn't imagine participating in any other way. (Most of the Torah readers are women, in fact, reflecting the many younger members motivated to learn what their grandmothers were not allowed to.) If the rabbi hadn't pointed out that everyone involved in the service was female, I might not have consciously registered it. But once she did, I began to kvell for my entire gender. I wondered what my father would have thought. I knew he would have been very proud.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

200. ...and the morning [part 1]...

Why, asked the rabbi yesterday morning at services, does a holiday characterized by our joy and connection to nature follow so soon after one in which we are commanded to be ascetic and solemn? Because, she suggested, teshuvah, and our completeness as human beings, requires both our souls and our bodies. To ignore one of these aspects--to remain in the mode of Yom Kippur, and forswear the earthbound happiness of Sukkot--would be to cut ourselves off from the possibility of healing all of ourselves, those parts most strongly connected to our physicality as well as those beyond it.

On the morning of Yom Kippur day, I awoke and thought: Now I have to stand in front of a lot of people and be serious. Time to start feeling serious. Then I took a deep breath, shut my eyes, and tried to sing a few notes. And, hallelujah, I still had a voice--it hadn't disappeared overnight like it did a week ago. I immediately wanted to jump out of bed and dance with maniacal glee, and access the physical, joyful part of myself that was scheduled to be exercised in about a week. But instead I just lay there for awhile and smiled, happy but feeling the need for decorum on a day of such gravitas, even though no one was watching.

The rain was still going strong. I put on my white clothing and an old pair of running shoes, and began the windswept walk to services. I was early, and sat in the little room for many minutes by myself listening the musicians warm up. Away from the sounds of the storm and the traffic of the business day that was just beginning, I felt like I had climbed into a safe, quiet cocoon.

The rabbi arrived and placed her waterlogged sneakers on the floor next to mine, as did the shaliah tzibur for Musaf, my Torah chanting teacher, a few minutes later. The Secret Rabbi Room began to look like a gym.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

199. And the evening...

Unlike other services, in which the most important stuff is preceded by an hour of warm-up for spiritual muscles--short prayers, lots of psalms--Kol Nidre just starts. There's no preamble; you've already had a month to get ready. "Please rise as the Ark is opened." The hum of conversation quiets as the musicians begin to play, two verses alone at first, with cello or recorder standing in for the human voice to follow. All the scrolls are removed from the Ark, a crowd of honored congregants at the bima embracing each one for the rest of us to see.

The first verse of Kol Nidre starts in a whisper, the cantor nearly speechless on our behalf, and then builds until we cower in awe at the end. There are many stories of the Kol Nidre melody changing lives, its echoes beckoning to people on the street who hadn't been in a synagogue for years. It is indeed sad and beautiful and immensely moving, but I find other prayers equally so. What touches me like fire is its delivery rather than its tune, and how the singer of Kol Nidre lays bare to the rest of us the soft yearning of his contrition, the heated power of her pleading. My synagogue has three simultaneous Kol Nidre services, and this year I was fortunate to be at the location of the cantor himself. He hadn't fully recovered from laryngitis; he sounded a little hoarse, a bit tentative. But, for me, this made his song even stronger. Raw and partly stripped of its elegance, I could hear his pain and longing more clearly than ever.

After the evening service and teaching that followed, I walked home in the loud, insistent rain. I sat on my sofa for awhile and wondered about life. Then I sang, reviewing Shaharit and Ne'ila one final time, and--in a non-traditional but, to me, fitting form observance--read some Jewish-themed blogs written by people coming to terms with pain and loss. I gave thanks for continuing to go from strength to strength, especially after a year when it seemed, for a few moments, that I might not be able to do so.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

198. Kol Nidre afternoon

No one could remember the last time it rained on Yom Kippur, which presaged Parashat Noach--a day of chilly, unrelenting downpour. This seemed to me like a good sign, since the state of the world has gotten worse and worse despite years of beautiful weather on the Yamim Nora'im. Maybe bad weather means that people, along with nature, are ready to behave in an opposite way, as well.

On Wednesday afternoon (just a week and a day ago--it seems like much longer), I stopped work early and shut down my computer and all its humming, glowing ancillary devices. My office got very quiet; the time began to feel different and special. I changed into an all-white outfit (except for a big black winter coat and umbrella, the elements taking precedence over style and symbolism), and went to meet my friend A. for our traditional overstuffed deli meal before beginning the fast. It felt strange to get on the subway with rush-hour crowds. I wanted everyone to stop moving and acknowledge the arrival of Kol Nidre; I wished that the whole world would calm down and listen along.

We ate sandwiches on rye fat enough for twelve, and I downed one final glass of Airborne. I don't know if the stuff really works, but my cold was almost gone and I was too superstitious to miss that last chance to OD on vitamin C. After running back home in the rain to get my entrance card, which I'd carefully placed on a table by the door and forgotten to take, I arrived at the synagogue. Every seat was filled, the air flush with expectation. We wrapped ourselves in our tallitot, the only time of the year when we wear it at an evening service, and waited for the music to begin.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

197. Waving

We wave the lulav today as a blessing, said the rabbi this morning at services, and we beat it against the floor on Hoshana Rabbah as a symbol of our sins. Good and bad are within us all, and the lulav represents both--so we wave as high and as low as possible to try and touch our opposite poles. These were comforting thoughts, especially so soon after Yom Kippur. I'd like to think that my soul, after so much prayer and pain and tears, is now cleansed, but I know I missed a few spots, and swept others under the rug. I'll try again on Hoshana Rabbah to banish more negative stuff, but some will surely remain.

Meanwhile, I ate lots of good food with great friends in beautiful sukkot, and will do it all over again tomorrow. Then a day and a half of reality--until Shabbat, once more. It's becoming difficult to imagine November and life with only one holiday per week.

Monday, October 17, 2005

196. Sukkot

Of the many Jewish holidays I observed blindly and with boredom as a kid, Sukkot aroused the least of my interest. One day not long after it became too chilly outside to wear shorts, a sukkah with green plastic walls would sprout in the parking lot behind the Kissena Jewish Center. My father and other old men in dark suits would crowd inside and sip shot glasses of wine while I swiped a sugar cookie or two and went out front to play with my friends. Sometimes I'd wander back in and examine, as if it were a breakable alien artifact, the lulav and etrog left behind on a folding table. We never had a set of our own at home; I never thought to ask why. And, despite six years of Hebrew School, I had no idea what you actually did with them except draw their portraits in crayon to hang on the green plastic walls. Like waiting five hours to have ice cream after eating a hot dog, and other odd rules, I figured that the strange plant and fruit combination was obtained and contemplated on Sukkot just because.

I did my best to ignore Sukkot until I joined my synagogue and learned that it was, in fact, a pretty cool holiday. I still don't really understand why we shake the lulav and etrog; last year was the first time I was able to approach the act with reverence and curiosity as an ancient Jewish ritual rather than reluctantly as a strange pagan one. Sukkot, a few thousand years ago, was the most important day of the year, and Rosh Hashonah just a preamble to signify the beginning of the month that hosted the harvest festival on its full moon. Sukkot post-demotion still wears the crown of "z'man simhatenu," "the season of our joy," and it always does make me happy. Maybe it's just relief from those previous forty days of soul-searching; now all I have to do is sit, eat and drink to be a good Jew. Maybe it's about that last chance to have a picnic before the weather gets cold.

I hope, one day, to celebrate this holiday away from the city. I don't think I'll ever understand the fragility of sitting under stars and within straw walls if my only sukkah experiences continue to take place on sidewalks behind tall buildings. Still, I've gotten pretty good at convincing myself that the apartment windows glimmering through a roof of woven pine branches are really lights much higher in the heavens, and delighting in the view.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

195. More to come

It's going to take me some time to write about this Yom Kippur. (Although I don't expect I'll need to contemplate it for a year, like the last one.) And just when you think the holidays have wound down, here they come again: Sukkot, starting tomorrow night, and then Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, as well as my favorite, Hoshana Rabbah, when I get to release my tensions by beating that poor lulav to a pulp against the floor. This also means, since they all happen to fall in the middle of the week, that I'll be spending my remaining time over the next ten days trying to stay sane while cramming five days of work into three.

So it may be awhile before I can gather my thoughts about last Thursday. I don't think I've ever experienced the day more fully, or felt less resolution and more confusion at the end--but this is good. That's how it's supposed to be. If you believe all your problems have been solved by that last shofar blast, you're not really human.

More to come shortly. Meanwhile, happy Sukkot!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

194. Sounds

At the end of every Friday evening service at my synagogue the rabbi offers a blessing, words found both in Psalm 29 and the Shabbat morning liturgy: "Adonai oz l'amo yiten; Adonai yivarech et amo vashaslom." "May God bless humanity with strength; may God bless humanity with peace." I had long forgotten the meaning of those lines when I listened to them six years ago, the first time since I was a kid. I was immediately intrigued by the sound of one word, in particular: "oz." Too embarrassed by my ignorance during those initial months of discovery to ask anyone for a translation, I still knew it had to be important; the rabbi always preceded "oz" with a slight pause, and gave it just a bit more emphasis than its companion syllables. The whisper of the "z," like a breath, the vibration of a hundred soft voices, a kiss, made me shiver. When I learned that the quiet persistence of "oz" meant "strength," I began to fall in love with the Hebrew language. How amazing to include the sound of compassion in a word about power.

I thought of those sounds, and others, during this morning's d'var Torah, offered by a member of the congregation. He contrasted Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, in which percussive words of hope at the beginning of the Israelites' journey dance joyfully in staggered lines across the parchment, with the poem in this week's portion, Ha'azinu. It's written in the scroll as two narrow columns, rhythmically heavy language divided by an empty space that represents Moshe's absence from the promised land, and also perhaps the hole in his heart. The Torah provides us with a multimedia experience millennia ahead of its time. I realized, while listening to this d'var, that the Shaharit service I sang on Yom Kippur morning was Shirat HaYam, as I tried with all my energy to make strong, clear sounds to help carry us on a day-long voyage of hope. And Ne'ila, nine hours later, when I was tired, hungry, and doubting that my words of contrition had even come close to those gates, was Ha'azinu, a final loud and hoarse entreaty. As I sang, I wished my Hebrew were fluent; how could I communicate meaning if I could not, at that instant, think it? I struggled with this all day on Yom Kippur, as I tried to formulate my own lists, intentions, and apologies, but could only conjure wordless yearning and regret about what I had done and not done. I became frustrated at the refusal of my thoughts to become verbal at prescribed moments. But as the day grew longer, I became aware that if my voice was honest and from a place of hope or despair, if I didn't cheat and try to hide from myself or God, then maybe the music would be equal in prayer and meaning to the words themselves. Then the sounds, rhythms and spaces would get the message across, just as they do in the Torah scroll. Whether I was able to do this, I have no idea. But I tried.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

193. G'mar tov

So, to my surprise, I really did finish the story of last Yom Kippur before this next one begins in a few hours. (There's still a postscript, to follow sometime soon.) It's been a challenging and fruitful ten Days of Awe, including a difficult rehearsal for Ne'ila that was, fortunately, followed the next day by a much better one. And my voice is almost back to normal. I could, of course, use another few weeks of preparation for the atoning and soul-searching part of the holiday, but that's always the case. I hope I can learn something tomorrow, in whatever state I may be.

G'mar chatima tovah ("be sealed and inscribed for goodness") to everyone, and may you have an easy fast.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

192. Fever


I could sing, but I couldn't really speak. That entire part of my voice now sounded like Harvey Fierstein, but I was still able to hit all the notes without any problem.

I arrived at the church to see the cantor lying on the floor, legs sticking out from under the keyboard. After a horrified moment, I realized he was fiddling with wires in order to get the keyboard to work. It did, finally, and so he ran back to the synagogue two blocks away to lead services over there.

After assuring the rabbi, who looked alarmed when I said hello, that I really did have a voice, we went out to the bima and began the service. Everything, at first, was fine; I could sing, although it took extra effort, and I knew my part backwards and forwards because I'd already done it twice the week before. After a half hour, however, I began to get tired. Really tired. And hot, especially my throat. I had hidden a cough drop in the back of my machzor, just in case. But since the thousand people in front of me were fasting, I couldn't actually pop it in my mouth; I would have to find an occasion to retreat discreetly to the Secret Rabbi Room. Such a moment wouldn't arrive for another couple of hours.

So I just fantasized about my cough drop instead. Shaharit ended, and then the Torah service. My voice and, even more so, my energy level were beginning to fade. The Torah reading, and my role as gabbai, began and ended and I grabbed my machzor and headed back out to congregation, thanking God preemptively for the water I wasn't supposed to drink today but would, anyway. But the rabbi walked over before I could sit down.

"Can you stay up here for Yizkor?" he whispered. "I want you to read the English parts." (English isn't his first language.) Most of the people who come to shul once a year on Yom Kippur only do so because of the memorial service of Yizkor, among the most solemn moments of the calendar. At my synagogue we add sad music and testimony from a Holocaust survivor, and after about ten minutes a thousand people, without fail, are in tears. It would be an enormous privilege to take part in those moments, but I had no speaking voice left whatsoever. But the rabbi didn't know this. "Let us read responsively," he said, and looked at me. I got really close to the microphone and started whispering; afterwards people told me it sounded very dramatic, perfect for the moment.

An elderly woman got up to speak, and the rabbi and I were able to sit down for a few minutes. He took a look at me, first time since we began. "Are you OK?" he whispered. I can only imagine what color of grey or green my skin had turned by that point; I felt like I was in a sauna, and the church was starting to spin very slowly. "Just fine!" I answered. It seemed rude to worry the rabbi as he was in the middle of leading the most important service of the year.

I didn't hear a single word of the elderly woman's heart-wrenching life story, or the sermon that followed, as I continued to yearn for the hour when I could taste the cough drop now clutched and melting in my sweaty palm. Finally it was time for Musaf, and the rabbi nodded to me in thanks. But he was wrong; I still couldn't leave the bima, because I had to help the woman who couldn't sing on key. I stood off to the side and hummed along, and then joined them both for a stanza of Uvechen and a very, very high verse of Hayom. Dear God, I prayed each time I had to open my mouth, please let a sound come out and I swear I'll be good for the rest of my life, or at least until next Yom Kippur. God was amenable, and I made it to the end of my first Yom Kippur as occasional shaliach tzibur intact, if a little worse for wear.

Monday, October 10, 2005

191. Sun Breeze Oil


I told the doctor this was unacceptable, and that I was counting on her to provide a cure for the common cold. She tried, plying me with samples of allergy medication that took away my symptoms for the next few days. On Wednesday, nicely doped up, I attended a hastily-convened rehearsal during which I learned I was needed to help out for Musaf, the afternoon service. The woman leading this part was still having problems staying on key; I was to stand off to the side and act as a sort of supporting vocal instrument, steering her back on course as needed. I would be a full third voice for two of the prayers, as well. I was also asked to be gabbai sheni for the Torah reading, the second-string checker up at the bima who would follow along with the machzor to catch any mistakes.

It was all very exciting and intense, and also meant that I would be "on" for the entire Yom Kippur service, either up at the bima or nearby from 9AM to about 2PM. Rabbis do this all the time, with stores of energy that are surely divinely inspired. Or maybe they take special clergy vitamins and sleep for two days beforehand. I have no idea. I wasn't worried, because I'm in good shape and pretty hardy. Friday evening arrived, the service of Kol Nidre, and I could still sing along with a full voice; the allergy medicine seemed to be doing its job. My old and dear friend M. had also flown in from the other side of the country to hear me the next morning, making the occasion seem even more auspicious.

I woke up at 6AM on Saturday, Yom Kippur day, and tried to sing. The Claritin, despite a valiant effort, had reached its limits; I couldn't make a sound. See here for what I did. But this time it worked. By about 8, all the nasty gunk in my throat had been tamed by lots of other drugs and Sun Breeze Oil, my special miracle ingredient, a shot of camphor and menthol that will, in sufficient amounts, blast a hole in your sinuses. What all this medication didn't do was reduce my fever. I was afraid to take my temperature, but I knew it wasn't normal. I didn't care. I could sing, and nothing else mattered.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

190. Yom Kippur, last year

Since I promised myself that I would finish all of last year's story before this year's began, and I haven't yet heard the words of Kol Nidre--"All vows and oaths we take... we hereby publicly retract..."--I guess I should finish. A week ago, my recounting of last Yom Kippur would have been full of drama; now it's anti-climactic, to say the least, and maybe even funny. (Sometimes I take myself way too seriously.) Here's the short version:

As we did yesterday, my synagogue had a kiddush last year on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, in honor of all the High Holy Day volunteers. The cantor, who had yet to give me any feedback about Rosh Hashonah, was standing nearby with some other people as a woman came over to shake my hand. She turned to him and said, "Why haven't you let her lead services before? Why?" A very awkward moment.

"I couldn't have done it before," I answered. "I didn't know how."

The cantor turned to me. "I'm very happy," he said, in his uniquely cryptic and direct way. Then he resumed the other conversation, and I decided I could now die happy, if such a fate had to befall me any time soon.

Shabbat ended, and I returned to reality for the next few days. I also caught a cold. Meanwhile, I wondered how religious services ever took place before the miracle of telecommunications: the cantor emailed us an MP3 of a new tune to one of the prayers, and sung a melody about which I was unsure into my answering machine.

On the Tuesday before Yom Kippur, I went to the doctor for a routine checkup. She took one look into my throat and said some ominous words: "You're about to get very sick."

Saturday, October 08, 2005

189. 5766, day two, last part

Last night the rabbi reminded us that our souls were probably very tired from all this recent work of teshuvah. Shabbat Shuva, today, was a good time to let them rest. This morning he emphasized that teshuvah was about looking ahead, advancing beyond rather than dwelling upon our past weaknesses and errors of judgment. His words were of great comfort, and also had the same effect on me as Cher slapping Nicholas Cage in "Moonstruck:" "Snap out of it!"

There's value in feeling small every once in awhile. Following too vigilantly the words of Nelson Mandela that hang on my wall--"You playing small doesn't serve the world"--can sometimes backfire. "And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." Leading services last year freed me in some intangible way, taught me how to communicate from a place I didn't even know I could access, but which others immediately understood. That response was intoxicating and, like any other drunken fool, my ego and judgment were distorted as a result. I've spent the past year in this blog and elsewhere trying to decipher that experience within the context of my life, but in truth a selfish little part of me, a part for which I need to do teshuvah, has just been waiting all these months for another chance to feel that rush. When I couldn't sing, I immediately mourned its certain absence and assumed, just as an anorexic looks in the mirror and sees a fat person, that the sounds coming out of my mouth would destroy the prayers I was supposed to enhance. The less I could sing, the more I became shrunken by the demands of my ego.

But today, after taking the rabbi's advice and letting my soul rest for a few hours, I began to understand that being small, painful as it was, created a very necessary wider space around me. Maybe God abhors a vacuum. I felt small, but never alone. The force of my panic was countered by the calm strength of the rabbi, the unwavering focus of my friends in the first row, the electricity of anticipation from people filling the church. And the band, always pushing gently to keep me aloft. In all that was God, making it possible for me to continue. It's what everyone meant, moments earlier, when they said I'd be fine. Maybe if I had been larger, there wouldn't have been room for all this energy.

Although I still don't quite believe them, and am embarrassed both by my doubts and my need to hear the words, many people told me I sounded lovely, if a bit muted. I emailed the rabbi and cantor with apologies and they said there was no need, and other things that astonished me, as always, by their grace and humility. I would be very sad if not asked to do this again, but also much wiser. The gift would keep on giving. Today, having slept and eaten, and passed people on the street who do not have that luxury, I'm reminded that this was just Shaharit, for heaven's sake, not even Kol Nidre, and just one uncomfortable hour out of my very comfortable life. I think my overwrought reaction was a warning: it's not really a nightmare, said God, but just a drill. You haven't let down people you love, or gotten stuck in the delirium of jealousy and self-worship, but this is what it might feel like if you did. Now that you know, maybe you won't have to do teshuvah for these things next year.

God always seems to provide a learning opportunity just when we're most full of ourselves and think we know everything. It makes me scared of the insights that Yom Kippur might bring.

Friday, October 07, 2005

188. 5766, day two, part 2

This story does not end in triumph, or with a miracle. We walked over to the bima and started singing, and I had even fewer notes than when I was warming up. Maybe the stress of the situation closed all the muscles in my throat. I don't know. We made it through Hareni Mikabelet and the Birkat Ha'shachar, my favorite melody of the morning, which started on a series of high notes that I could still sing.

But as we continued, I felt my sounds drifting away and their remnants, to my ears, becoming faint and frog-like. I tried not to be horrified at what came out of my mouth, but could think only of the unpleasant experience I must have been creating for the congregation. I wouldn't want to sit there on the morning of a happy holiday and hear someone struggle. I knew the rabbi would step in if I stopped singing, but I didn't stop. Part of me hoped I would deduce some new method of breathing or standing that would make everything OK.

I looked out and saw the rabbi who had offered me her words of support. She was smiling, and I remembered that I was praying. So I tried to stop worrying about the performance, tried to ignore old, little voices suggesting that disaster would occur if I didn't do my best, tried to forget my fear that this gift I had been given by the rabbis and cantor, this privilege of offering song during which I felt closer to God than ever before, might never come again. I felt like Sisyphus, each note pushing the rock up a little higher only to have it fall down at the next. I felt very small, as if the walls of the church had expanded by magnitudes and I was suddenly far from everyone else.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

187. 5766, day two, part 1

I finally walked over to the railing and threw bread into the water, this year crumbs of relief and gratitude. The sun turned pink and orange over the Hudson River as the crowd began to thin, heading to various evening services or back home to try and eat dinner on top of too heavy, too late lunches. After a pleasantly brief service at my synagogue, R., my niece and I went to a diner. (The company of family and friends always trumps halakha [the rules] for me.) I was starting to fall asleep in my bowl of soup, so I left before dessert and got right into bed. But some sort of alarm--a clock next door? a parked car twelve stories below?--decided to sound for hours and hours, BEEP-beep, BEEP-beep, keeping me awake until I finally sank into fitful dreams at around 1AM.

I woke up at 5:30, a half hour before the alarm, and tried to sing. I could not. It wasn't the muteness of congestion, which I defeated last Yom Kippur with the help of many drugs, but the immutable silence of swollen vocal cords. Immediately I thought: I'm screwed. I knew there were better uses for my energy than panic, but it wasn't easy. I wanted to bang my head into a wall for staying out so late. I wanted God to explain, immediately, why this needed to happen two years in a row.

I tried all the techniques that worked last September: vocalizing very slowly over two hours, inhaling steam, downing cups of hot tea, standing under the shower for many minutes with warm water pounding my back. I managed to reclaim some notes on top and down below, but my entire middle range, where most of the chatimot, the phrases that conclude each prayer, were set, was entirely gone. At around 7AM I gave up on the top and bottom, and concentrated instead on the notes between the A below middle C and the G above. I tried to visualize rubber bands stretching very slowly... come on, vocal cords, you can do it. By 8 I could sing the chatimot and, oddly, the really high parts, but little else. For a few seconds here and there I had all the notes, but they were slippery and elusive, like trying to catch fish with bare hands.

I got to the church at 8:30 and continued to warm up. I let the musicians know they might have to be quieter than usual. "Don't worry!" they said. "You'll be fine." The first rabbi arrived, and saw how nervous I was. She took my hands and offered a prayer: that I would sing with my heart and soul, and know that my voice would follow. "Don't worry!" she said. "You'll be fine." The other rabbi arrived, the one with the beautiful voice, with whom I'd be leading. I asked him to cover for me, particularly on the Ashrei and Kedushah sections. "Don't worry!" he said, in words serene and strong enough to stop wars. "You'll be fine."

When we walked out of the little room at 9, I had no idea if sounds would come out of my mouth. But I was filled with wishes of love and support, and had no choice than to believe I would be anything other than fine.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

186. 5766, day one

Welcome to 5766, so far a little more interesting than planned. But life does that sometimes.

I've been trying to shake an annoying cold and yesterday, finally, it seemed to be on its last legs. I led Shaharit for the first day of Rosh Hashonah in the company of two rabbis, the three of us shoulder to shoulder at the bima. Morning light streamed in from the open back doors as we sang, turning the grey stone walls white as people slowly filled the church. My head was congested, and I had to focus all my energies on my voice and breath in order to produce a decent sound. I realized, when I tried to recall the experience afterwards, that I was barely aware of my surroundings, oblivious to everything except the machzor and musicians, whose cues were steadier than steel even as their rhythms and tempi changed with the emotions of the crowd. I wasn't nervous at all; I almost forgot where I was. All I thought about was singing and praying.

After my part ended I joined friends in the first row, a pretty intense place to sit when in a state somewhere between dreaming and hyperawareness. I tried to envision my plan for the coming year but the prayers and music, so loud and close, kept taking me to those weeks of uncertainty before my surgery in April when I thought I might not be OK. (I am, completely.) That apprehension left its mark, an ever-present sense in the back of my mind of the transient nature of joy and despair and an urgency to enjoy all their gifts, both good and bad. But with that, as well, a fear of stepping too far off the cliff. As the Unetane Tokef told of fates too awful to contemplate, I found myself praying just one thing: thank God I'm alive and healthy. Everything else--who I'm supposed to be in this life, how I can do my part in the world--seemed, at that moment, easy in comparison.

My niece and I joined some friends after services for bagels and lox and then headed over to the park for tashlikh, R. journeying in from her dad's synagogue in Queens to join us. Once again I ran into every single person I knew, this time including my newly-married, newly-Orthodox first cousin once removed on my mother's side. I introduced him to my niece, related on my father's side, an historic occasion: it's been twenty or thirty years since relatives from different sides of my family met each other, let alone were able to talk without yelling. Meanwhile I sat exhausted on a park bench with my cousin's pregnant wife as friends stopped by to say hello. Many of them had heard me sing that morning, and offered gracious compliments. My cousin's wife was intrigued, and asked lots of questions; her world doesn't include women who lead services. Then she told me she felt like she was sitting next to a rock star, what with so many people coming over to shake my hand. It's one thing for me to pretend I'm a rock star, but someone else saying it is kind of funny, and very cool.

Monday, October 03, 2005

185. Second day

We left the park at sunset and headed back to the church for a brief service to began the second day of Rosh Hashonah. (There was also an evening service the day before, followed by dinner at a friend's house, both of which I have no recollection. I guess I was kind of nervous about the next morning.) I wasn't hungry after my big Indian lunch, so R. and I skipped dinner and went straight to dessert. We sat in Crema Lita for hours in our own version of the ritual meal (at least it was healthy, Kosher ice cream), as I tried to decompress from the day.

The next morning I led services at the synagogue. I was less nervous than the day before, since I now knew I could do it, but--though it didn't seem possible--was even more excited. This was a space that felt like home, where the walls and floors shone with intricate designs of red and gold that might have come straight from heaven. It was where I spent every Friday evening, and where most of my friends would be.

Once again I took a long, slow walk to the synagogue. I would be leading with the same rabbi as on the first day, plus another, the three of us standing together at the bima. At 8:55 the musicians went out front to start playing... and discovered that the sound system wasn't working. Various large men crawled under equipment and played with wires while someone else raced two blocks to the church to get the cantor's expert instructions. Abandoning the planned drama of emerging to the sounds of music, the rabbis and I opened the door to the Secret Rabbi Room and hung around until the sound system finally kicked in, many minutes later.

Only one microphone was working, so I was handed a wireless mic. One of the rabbis graciously left the bima and sat with the congregation, since no one could find a functional third mic. I remained up front with the rabbi I had accompanied the day before, and we led the service all over again. I was blanketed by a quilt of people; this space was smaller than the church, the rows more crowded. I turned to face the Ark for the Barchu, and it was so close that I gasped. I remember thinking it didn't seem fair that I, and no one else, would get the chance to sing to her so intimately.

After it was over, I took a seat in the congregation for the Torah service and Musaf, and then I think I had lunch at a friend's house. I'm not sure; my body and brain were in different places. I returned home to find a message on my answering machine: my cousin Bunny, who was 79, had passed away very suddenly that morning. She and I were once close, but hadn't spoken in about a year. I was meaning to get in touch.

I called her husband, expressed shock and grief, hung up, and stood there in my living room shivering with guilt, sadness, and rage. How dare God do this on a day when I was so happy? And--how dare I be so self-centered? What was wrong with me?

Eventually I was able to think again, and remember what I believed: that God neither rewards nor punishes, despite the grand High Holiday liturgy that might suggest otherwise. God just is, simply and marvelously. We can learn everything about the "how" of life and death, but the "why" is God, and beyond our understanding. All we can do is live the best we can, and marvel at the rest.

The second day of Rosh Hashonah is also the yahrtzeit of my cousin Jerry, who died in 1998. (A long story that was, I'm proud to say, just published in an anthology.) I wore his tallit regularly until it fell apart a few months ago. Last week I bought a new one, big as a tent and pure white, and sewed a part of the old tallit onto the new. On Tuesday and Wednesday mornings I'll wrap myself in it for the first time and, within the gentle fabric of second chances and new beginnings, become enfolded in the memories of both my cousins.


I'll be offline until the end of the week, having all sorts of new experiences. This afternoon I learned that the cantor has laryngitis and won't be singing at all, roughly equivalent to an Olympic sprinter breaking his foot before the gold medal race. It's awful; hopefully he'll recover by next Wednesday, the evening of Yom Kippur and Kol Nidre. I'm already singing everything I know (Shaharit) on both days of Rosh Hashonah, so the other two lay leaders have to cover his parts. Locations were also shifted around at the last minute, so I won't get to lead at the synagogue after all. I'm disappointed, for selfish reasons of ego more than anything else; I need to remember the words of this prayer a friend just sent me:

"Open my eyes, God. Help me to perceive what I have ignored, to uncover what I have forsaken, to find what I have been searching for. Remind me that I don't have to journey far to discover something new, for miracles surround me, blessings and holiness abound. And You are near." --Rabbi Naomi Levy

To all my friends I wish the gift of seeing the wonderful things already in front of you, and finding others you've been searching for. L'shanah tovah umetukah tikatevu ("May you be inscribed [in the book of life] for a good and sweet year")!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

184. Tashlikh


Whenever I'm most doubtful about the possibility of world peace, I remember the ritual of tashlikh ("casting away") as performed on the Upper West Side. On tashlikh, which happens on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah (unless it's Shabbat), you throw pieces of bread into a a body of water--preferably running, and with fish--to represent the purging of your sins for the year. In other words, according to a particularly creative visiting scholar at my synagogue, tashlikh is like going to the bathroom. It's a time to get rid of toxins.

Tasklikh is very simple; you don't even have to say a prayer (although many choose to). Because it requires leaving one's usual surroundings and going out into nature, or what passes for nature, I think it's one of the strongest memories many Jews have from childhood. Even those whose families didn't participate remember watching others do it, or perhaps the procession, on a sunny late afternoon, of people in their holiday finery marching through local streets to the nearest body of water.

When I was a child, my parents and I would join the rest of the congregation and head for Kissena Park Lake, an excursion through a neighborhood nicer than ours of wide lawns and old oak trees where I always got lost when I rode my bike. I remember walking in between my father, in white canvas sneakers and a wrinkled grey suit, and my mother, with a perfectly teased beehive and tiny clutch purse, and being glad for this chance to visit foreign terrain with reinforcements.

One year when I was no more than seven or eight, a boy from my school--I didn't know him, but had heard stories--had set off a cherry bomb, a massive firecracker, from inside the hollow of a light pole. I'm not sure if he really died from the explosion, or if it was just a rumor. But the brown stain on the sidewalk that my mother and I passed that afternoon on our way to tashlikh was definitely his blood. I held my mother's hand tightly as she pointed to the ground with the other and, as if warding off a curse, shook her head back and forth. "It's horrible, just horrible." And then she pulled me away and we kept walking, her heels clicking on the concrete as I tried to keep up. I wondered how anyone could be so bad that God would let him die. If I threw my bread into the water, would God forgive me? Would God let me live, even if I was bad?

But I was soon distracted from my fear. We reached the lake and I ran off with friends, maybe up the hill to carve my initials in a tree, while the adults dodged cyclists in the park and shmoozed by the water. Years later, on the bus to R.'s dad's house for one of our annual excursions to the synagogue of the nearly dead, I would watch black-suited men from the Orthodox part of the neighborhood gather under a bridge for tashlikh at the very opposite end of the same park.

But getting back to world peace. There are roughly 70,000 Jews on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (out of about a million in all of New York), and I think most of us go to Riverside Park for tashlikh. For a few hours the narrow, mile-long strip between 72nd and 96th Streets is packed with every kind of Jew there is, from black-hatted and Orthodox, with their heavyset wives in sheitels trying to rein in a dozen toddlers, to Birkenstocked men in caftans, to a wide array of people in uncomfortable suits, to me. And lots of men and women from other religions, too, because you don't have to wear a kippah or speak Hebrew to perform this ritual. You just have to be wiling to speak to your own heart. This is the only holiday when people bring along their dogs. We stand around and catch up on gossip, commiserate and congratulate, and then we move over to the railing by the edge of the Hudson River. Everyone else keeps a respectful distance from those throwing bread into the water. We stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers whose religious or political viewpoints are probably opposite ours, but in that moment are grateful to share each other's space. We stand in front of the water, a part of creation that preceded our own, and are all equal before God.

Throwing pieces of bread is a visceral and satisfying way to express emotion. Bread is central to many Jewish rituals: the two challot at Friday night dinner, for example, one for your usual soul and the other for the extra one you get on Shabbat; or matzah, the Passover bread of affliction. Bread is a stand-in for many human conditions. Sometimes I throw with anger and other times with compassion, glad that my refuse can be food for the fish. Sometimes I wind up like I'm throwing a softball, hoping my crumbs will reach a distance proportionate to my fortune for the coming year. Other times each piece feels like one more tear added to a collection of many.

R. and I wandered around the park as people I barely knew came over to shake my hand, wondering why they had never seen me lead services before. Afterwards, I flung my bread into the water with gratitude at the wonderful thing I had been allowed to do.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

183. Coherent

My brain is now working, and I think I'm going to be fine. From Thursday evening through this morning, I was very, very afraid this Rosh Hashonah would be a replay of last Yom Kippur, when I led services with a cold and fever. Although, in retrospect, it was an incredible experience, it wasn't much fun at the time. Before beginning each prayer I said a silent one of my own: "Dear God, please let a sound come out of my mouth. Any sound." God was compliant, although some of the sounds weren't too pretty.

But I think I've escaped the worst. I'm usually curmudgeonly about colds; I believe that no amount of pharmaceuticals, herbs, or vitamins will have any effect, and all you can really do is wait for the thing to run its course. This time around I solicited the advice of everyone I knew, and actually followed it. For two days I plied myself with enough natural and homeopathic remedies to open a health food store. Chicken soup, too. (Over-the-counter medications get rid of the symptoms, but make me feel worse; I save them for the most desperate of times.)

Whether they worked or it was just luck, I have no idea. But what started out as a potentially dire situation (sore throat, stuffed head, the kind of thing that usually lasts over a week and escalates to a little man sitting on my chest, pounding my head with a mallet) is now a mere head cold. Throat feels fine, and I'm once again able to form complete sentences.

I made it to the last hour of services this morning; I wasn't feeling great, but didn't want to spend all of Shabbat indoors with self-pity as my only company. I arrived to hear the cantor singing... nothing, for the first time in my six years of attending services. Apparently he also has a cold, caught as quickly as mine; I spoke to him Thursday afternoon and he sounded fine. What are the Holidays without a little drama?