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.


~Jan said...

I can't tell you how much I love this narrative! This section was told with such gentle, self-deprecating humor and grace. Again, thank you so much for bringing others along on your journey.

alto artist said...

Thank you so very much. (I think I'm almost out of stories now, though...I have to figure out something else to write!)