Wednesday, November 30, 2005

231. Not bad at all

I am not meting out this story one paragraph at a time for dramatic effect (well, not entirely), but because this has been a week of 15-hour work days. Once I'm awake enough to find the exact words to describe the conclusion of my spiritual Olympics, I will do so. Meanwhile, I got another one of those "By the way..." phone calls this afternoon, and so will be leading services on Friday. This evening I also confirmed that I'll be chanting Torah at three services in Israel with the other members of my trip. Just the phrase "I'll be chanting Torah in Israel" makes my hair stand on end. I cannot conceive of how that might feel. I hope I don't faint. We'll read each morning that week because of Hanukkah, and I already know most of it from last year (from Numbers, lots and lots of offerings, bulls, lambs, she-goats, you name it.)

My insane week no longer seems half bad at all.

Monday, November 28, 2005

230. Stage

This theater was very, very different than the church or synagogue: upholstered seats, smoky lighting, and since we were partially below ground level, no windows. A small Ark stood in the center of the stage, surrounded by Oriental rugs that covered a wooden floor painted glossy grey. I left my jacket in a backstage Green Room about five times larger than my apartment, and found a seat in the audience; Ne'ila wouldn't begin until 6, after the Minha service and teaching. The instrumentalists began to gather over to the right by a grand piano, and I could see a sound engineer stage left at what looked like the dashboard of a space station. I was impressed, although it seemed like we were all waiting for the curtain to rise on a musical rather than a very serious religious service.

Although I'd been fasting for the past 23 hours, I wasn't the least bit uncomfortable. Adrenaline is much more effective than food or water. I felt guilty for being excited; these were the gravest hours of the year. But, just like the rehearsals that made me feel like a rock star, this was certainly the closest I'd ever get to singing solo on a Broadway stage. I still had until sunset to ask forgiveness for my delusions of grandeur.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

229. Zipper

At the very old but newly renovated theater where I was to lead Ne'ila, you might hear a James Joyce marathon reading or concert of avant garde polka music from Sweden. A hip and countercultural sort of place, it was a fitting venue for my synagogue. But in a concession to the very commercial need for an audience, they installed a "zipper" above the front marquee, a rotating string of words in lights like at Times Square, to announce current shows ("GEMS OF ICELANDIC CINEMA...TUES 3PM...$15...GEMS OF ICELANDIC CINEMA...TUES 3PM..."). As I approached the theater, I suddenly wondered what they were going to do about that zipper. The place would appear to be closed if they turned it off, and people might get confused. "HAPPY YOM KIPPUR TO OUR JEWISH FRIENDS..."? Maybe some tasteful Biblical quote: "MARK, THE TENTH DAY OF THIS SEVENTH MONTH IS THE DAY OF ATONEMENT...SOLD OUT..." Or, "YOU SHALL PRACTICE SELF-DENIAL...TICKET HOLDERS ONLY..."

The zipper was still on. But all it said was the neighborly and innocuous (and incorrect, by 15 minutes) "WELCOME...SERVICES 4:15...WELCOME...SERVICES 4:15..." And they were not, thank goodness, selling popcorn in the lobby.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

228. ...was the tenth day.

(Continued, from this and this).

I sat with my friends for Musaf. Swathed in many different kinds of white fabric, I felt safe, secure, and compelled to purify my soul in order to match the example set by my garments. I drew my tallit over my head during the Amidah and under its shelter, hidden from people, I cried and prayed that I might be more visible than ever to God. At the Aleinu Malhuyot the rabbi invited us to follow the custom of our grandparents and observe the true intent of the line "while we kneel, bow, and give thanks." I had always been too self-conscious, and a little afraid, to lie down, to prostrate myself; the gesture seemed like overacting when performed by non-rabbis, and also too powerful to bear. But this time I did it, along with a dozen others at the front of the sanctuary. When it came time to stand, there seemed to be a weight on my back forcing my forehead to the floor. I needed more than a moment of humility. But the service continued and so, shaking, I got up.

I walked home in the rain, and sat on the sofa and stared into space for an hour. I practiced the Havdalah service one more time; I was afraid I'd forget the words to "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem that I should have known by heart but didn't, and which closes the whole proceedings after the lights come back on. Then, tired, hungry, sated, alone, together, spent, filled, confused, and completely clear about what I still needed to do, I walked the few blocks to the theater to help lead Ne'ila, the closing service of Yom Kippur.

Friday, November 25, 2005

227. One song left, part 2


Afterwards, I thought about my "one song" and knew immediately that it would be from the High Holy Day or Shabbat liturgy, one of the melodies already etched into my brain and bones. I wouldn't understand the meaning of every word in my song, as is the case with most of the prayers I've led, but I think the audience would still trust in my attempt at honesty. The sounds themselves would fill in the gaps.

And that, perhaps, is also why I sometimes feel like an imposter in front of my congregation. I am singing on their behalf, but also for my own life. When I can't grasp the full intent of these prayers, I replace the blank lines with myself. Is it sufficient to speak in my own private language and be glad that other people, somehow, understand? The rabbis trust me to get it right, but I could miss the point entirely and not know it. It feels very self-indulgent. And I can never learn enough of what I'm supposed to know, no matter how much I try--this is, after all, just one small part of my story, a gift given to me by the rabbis and congregation of an hour or two every month or so in between the rest of my life. Sometimes those few moments are like fuel for all the hours that remain. Will I ever be able to repay the favor to those who listen, without whose support and voices I could not sing at all?

I remind myself that the rabbis also struggle, in ways I can't know. One of them calls prayer "holy chutzpah"--how dare we address God at all! But we persist because prayer, as Heschel wrote, is our only possible response to the amazement of living. I don't understand why it gives me strength; I'm afraid that one day it will stop, as suddenly as it began. The world will seem hollow, and I'll no longer be able to stand in front of everyone and wait for their energy and joy to become my own.

I worry too much. Tonight the rabbi spoke about this week's parasha, Chayyei Sarah, in which Jacob and Ishmael come together to bury their father Isaac. They are not the best of friends, but the Torah speaks of no strife or debate; they simply, with grace and compassion, do what's needed. Sometimes, the rabbi observed, we just have to say baruch HaShem, thank God for what we have and where we are, and live. There's a time for high drama, and a time to get on with it.

Maybe there isn't "one song" for any of us, just as there isn't one Torah--it changes as we do, and we need to accept each new melody and just get on with it. My life and language are fluid; whatever sound comes out, good or bad, stumbling or confident, will be valid. The people who listen to me already know this. I need to trust and believe them.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

226. One song left, part 1

My niece and I have a tradition of spending Thanksgiving afternoon at the movies, and today we saw "Walk The Line," about the relationship between Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. I'm not a fan of country music--I've tried, I really have--but loved this film. Although I never knew what a sad, complex, and ultimately satisfying life and career he had, or what a strong woman she was (or how appealing Joaquin Phoenix is), I was most moved by the brief insights into how Cash came to write songs that spoke so eloquently from his soul. "Walk The Line," as critics have pointed out, is not really about his music. But enough of that other story survived the cutting room floor for me to do what the best of movies, and literature, encourage--project myself onto the characters, and imagine how their struggles might reflect my own.

I have very, very little in common with Johnny Cash. There was a scene, however, when his band is auditioning for Sam Phillips, the Sun Records owner who gave him his big break. They sing a popular Gospel tune. Phillips stops them in the middle--sorry, I can't make money from this. I'm not convinced you mean it. Cash gets angry; are you telling me I don't believe in God?

Pretend you have only one song left to sing in your life, says Phillips. Would it be this one? Come back when you have that song for me. (According to the review cited above, the more popular version of the quote is "Go home and sin, and then come back with a song I can sell.") So, in true Hollywood fashion, Cash begins to growl out "Folsom Prison Blues" ("I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die"), showing us that he's capable of raw, honest emotion and Oscar-caliber acting. Phillips loves it; a star is born.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

225. Gratefulness

"To pray is to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. Who is worthy to be present at the constant unfolding of time? Amidst the meditation of mountains, the humility of flowers--wiser than all alphabets--clouds that die constantly for the sake of God's glory, we are hating, hunting, hurting. Suddenly we feel ashamed of our clashes and complaints in the face of the tacit glory in nature. It is so embarrassing to live! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great."
--Abraham Joshua Heschel

This evening I attended an interfaith Thanksgiving service which was remarkable because it wasn't remarkable. For the past ten years it's rotated among houses of worship, sponsored by an organization of West Side clergy; my synagogue hosted tonight for the first time ever. About 200 people showed up, with prayers and songs co-led by an imam, a Buddhist priest, a bunch of rabbis and ministers, and a fabulous, multi-ethnic Gospel choir from the church down the block. We read the Heschel quote above, which kind of summarizes in one amazing paragraph everything I've been trying to express during the past year, and we collected money for the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.

My wish for this Thanksgiving is to live in a world just like tonight's service where all people, without fanfare, will choose to give thanks, and give of themselves, in partnership with those who believe as they do as well as those who do not. Hoping everyone reading this has a day filled with peace, abundance, and gratitude.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

224. Of prayer and a farm animal


I was caught up in spiritual fervor, and feeling confident and pretty satisfied with myself. We finished the silent Amidah.

"Please turn to p. 441 for the chazara," said the rabbi.

"Chazara." This was the second time in my life I had heard the word. I had no idea what it meant, but was apparently about to do it. On Rosh Hashonah, during a moment of distraction from my vocal struggles, I first heard the rabbi invite us to this thing; I never got around to checking a dictionary, but guessed it had to do with "chazzan," cantor, me, since we were about to begin the reader's repetition of the Amidah. (The Amidah is traditionally read twice, the first time silently and then again sung by the cantor. We repeat it at my synagogue only on the High Holy Days.) That Yom Kippur morning I pondered the word for a few seconds with a clearer head, and noted with some alarm that it sounded suspiciously like another, more familiar one: "chazzerai," the not very complimentary Yiddish term meaning pig stuff, treyf, that which is non-kosher. Or, more generally, garbage food. Echoes of my mother yelling, as I emerged from a candy store, "Don't eat that chazzerai! You'll spoil dinner!"

The rabbi would not be calling me a pig, and I was certain that "chazara" and "chazzerai" could not in any way, shape or form mean the same thing. Never. Well, almost certain. The following day I Googled the word, and discovered I wasn't the only person confused by the similarity in sound. Here was the answer, in very proper academic terms, from a Yiddish language discussion list:

Q: Can anyone suggest why the Yiddish word iberkhazern, which means "to review, to repeat, to go over," is derived from the Hebrew word "khazer," meaning "pig." What is the connection?

A: The word iberkhazern is a combination of the Yiddish "iber" [above, beyond] and the Hebrew "la-chzor" or "chazara" [to repeat, repetition]. It has nothing to do with chazir (i.e., pig).

As usual, the rabbis at my synagogue were trying to expand our knowledge by using a traditional Hebrew term instead of the English, so "chazara" (which has no connection to the word "chazzan") rather than "repetition of the Amidah." I imagined the writer of the discussion list query sitting down at the keyboard after Shabbat: "Of course they wouldn't be talking about pork during services. But it sure sounded like they were. Nah, no way. Oy. How can I ask this question without sounding stupid?" I am grateful to Google for saving me from similar embarrassment.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

223. ...and the morning [part 3]...


We walked out to the bima and began the service. Between my lingering cold and lack of sleep the night before, thanks to the traditional Muslim fig cake I stayed awake to bake for an interfaith break-fast*, I was exhausted. But I could sing, more or less, and the emotion of the day was much better than water for my parched throat. As the morning continued and I grew tired and hungry, the distance from me to God seemed to diminish. Our conversation began to get personal, even in front of a thousand people. At the U'vechen, the rabbi and I--although we had planned to alternate verses--sang in unison, just like the two male rabbis and cantor a few years earlier. I was able to match her note for note; we sounded like one person, and I could feel the power of many more going through my bones.

A few years ago at a singing workshop, a vocal coach addressed me during a master class. You sound really nice, she said, but something is missing and I don't know how to help you find it. She pointed to her heart. I was upset and confused by her criticism; how was I supposed to become a better singer if she couldn't tell me what was wrong? The whole process seemed a little less fun after that. Questions about the lost, unknown thing were always in the back of my mind.

I thought of the teacher's comment when I went back to sit with the congregation after Shaharit ended. I realized that I had found it, the elusive heart of my voice, the very first time I chanted Torah. It was still fun to sing the music I always loved, the Renaissance motets and weird avant garde French choral pieces, but they now seemed without texture, two-dimensional, a copy of the real thing. This morning that extra force was so strong it seemed to leap out of my chest and alight behind the bima just like another person.

*My first attempt to bake since the age of 12. It went fine, but the cake was misplaced at the event and is currently in a friend's freezer. So I escaped the risk of my poor domestic skills posing a threat to local interfaith relations.

Friday, November 18, 2005

222. Words

Just as I was pondering the handicap of memory in my last post, I read the following in Sinai and Zion, a book for my Me'ah course:

"It is significant for our understanding of the nature of the religion of Israel among the religions of the world that meaning for her is derived not from introspection, but from a consideration of the public testimony to God. The present generation... do[es] not determine who they are by looking within, by plumbing the depths of the individual soul, by seeking a mystical light in the innermost reaches of the self. Rather, the direction is the opposite... One looks out from the self to find out who one is meant to be... Israel began to infer and to affirm her identity by telling a story." [pp. 38-39]

This struck me as a good capsule analysis of the enduring link in Judaism between text and spirit. Sometimes it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Maybe that's why I'm so afraid to make a mistake when chanting Torah; the words do not simply represent the story, but are the story, of which I become a part when I read. The responsibility is enormous. I think we circumvent the risk of becoming like the generations before Abraham, of worshipping words as if they were idols, by never agreeing on their interpretation (see, for example, the entire Talmud). To insist there's no room for change in Judaism, to observe inflexibly, seems almost sacrilegious.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

221. Tinfoil hat

In homage to a wonderful fellow blogger, I almost called this post "On appearing to be crazy." It's now socially acceptable in New York to talk to yourself while walking down the street. In fact, you're actually speaking into a cell phone to one of your multitudes of friends via ear buds and a lapel mic or, better yet, a hidden Bluetooth receiver. But you still look like you're communicating with aliens, even though you've left the tinfoil hat back home.

This strange trend gave me the idea of downloading a Hebrew conversation audiobook, which should help me achieve kindergarten-level prowess in only four hours of boring repetition. (I can understand phrases like "bull of pleasant odor," but don't know how to ask what time it is, or anything else even vaguely practical.) Since my only free time is when I'm getting from place to place, I figure no one on the street or subway will care if I'm mumbling "Ani mevina Ivrit" ["I understand Hebrew"] over and over again into my iPod.

In truth, I can go to Israel for a week and never need a word of Hebrew, since I'll be with a big group of Americans. But this seems rude, like a dinner guest who shows up empty-handed. Israel will always welcome me unconditionally; the least I can do is try to speak her language. Beyond that, I have no expectations about my trip. Will I feel awed and overwhelmed when I get off the plane? Or will I feel little beyond the usual excitement of a tourist, but pretend to be overwhelmed for the sake of appearances? Is my heart bound to this land or is it, thanks to years of disinterest, denial, and ambivalence, inaccessible?

I'm not sure. We discussed our emotional biases about Israel at a class last night. Most American Jews think of Israel as a place of refuge--but this also implies that our image of home is linked to memories of fear. So we're wary, like an abused child, of offering criticism even when the situation warrants it, because criticism might disturb the status quo and so diminish our already tentative sense of security.

We spent thousands of years yearning for a land where the goodness of the Bible could be lived. Now that it exists, we still need to figure out how reach past our scars and to our dreams. As the rabbi put it, it was easier to be the conscience of humanity when we were powerless.

Maybe I will "mevina" once I get off that plane. Maybe not.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

220. Privilege

I danced with the Torah for a few minutes--or maybe less, since time had stopped. I felt like Maria in "West Side Story," that instant when she sees Tony from across the room and everything turns to slow motion. I noticed the yearning in the faces of others who moved around me, and felt guilty for holding on to my gift for so long. So, just like the woman who gave me the scroll, I made eye contact with someone else in the circle. She smiled and held out her ams; I handed over the Torah, and draped my tallit around her shoulders. I ran back out into the ring of dancers and knew, immediately, what had changed--now, when I clasped my hands to theirs, the gesture was of partnership rather than a need to be led. It seems silly to me that I felt so separate from all those words until I was able to physically touch the parchment upon which they were written, but I did. We grow closer each time I chant from the scroll, but I'm still in awe, still a little afraid.

A few weeks ago, I was saddened by many posts in different blogs from women who felt disenfranchised on Simchat Torah because they were unable to dance with the Torot--and, in some cases, weren't allowed, or were discouraged by minhag (custom), to dance at all. I know that the separation of the sexes in Orthodox practice can be a joyful experience, and also bestows a wonderful, privileged status upon women that never quite happens in egalitarian circles. (At a class tonight, the rabbi spoke of a female scholar who visited a traditional yeshiva in Jerusalem. She blew everyone away with her brilliance. This, said the teacher, is why we don't let them study with us.) But I know, as well, that many women crave the experience I had. And practice hasn't caught up with custom even at a very large number of progressive Conservative congregations, where women are viewed as interlopers when they actually do the things they have the right to do.

Gender parity is so entrenched at my synagogue that's it's almost a non-issue. I was surprised, a few years back, when a traditional women's Rosh Hodesh group was formed... why do we need such a thing, I wondered? But the group exists on its own merits, neither to prove a point nor fill a vacuum, and so provides an even more powerful experience that it might otherwise. I envy the children growing up at my synagogue who won't even remember a time when any of this was an issue.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

219. Twirling

Getting back to that Simchat Torah of a few years ago...

The Torah scroll was much lighter than I thought it would be. At first I held it like a child, gently and tightly, afraid it might fall. But everyone around me was moving in a frenzy, and I couldn't stand still--I had to take the chance and jump, sway, fly with the scroll clasped in my arms. Like a scene from a movie, the perimeters of the sanctuary began to recede and blur, and the loud music fall away, until the scroll and I twirled alone in the center of an oasis of dancers.

Monday, November 14, 2005

218. Sefer Torah, part 2

A man with a grey beard walks over to the platform. He talks about Amalek, the biblical enemy of the Israelites who preyed upon their weak and elderly. The Torah commands us to "blot out the name of Amalek" and sofrim do so, literally, before writing holy words. Amalek may be long gone, he explains, but his curse remains--we all have places of negativity within our hearts. Now, in these next moments, we can expunge them. We watch on the large screen as he dips a quill into a bottle of ink and then, slowly, stroke by measured stroke, writes letters... aleph, mem, lamed... I'm fascinated by the graceful rhythm with which he creates each mark, as if playing a tune with the quill. He finishes the word and, almost before we can read it, obscures it with a large "x". A few thousand years of Jewish history have been compressed into less than a minute. I realize that I'm shaking, and feel tears running down my face.

He dips the quill again, surrounded by people and Torot, and we stand on our toes and move closer to the platform. He says a few words of prayer, leans over the parchment, and begins to fill in the curves and bars, the twists and angles, of "Bereshit." We watch in silence as the word becomes solid and alive. He puts down the quill and faces the crowd; I feel like he's looking directly into my eyes. "Mazel tov!" he exclaims. We applaud and embrace, and link arms to sing the Sheheheyanu blessing: "Blessed are You, our God, Creator of time and space, who has supported us, protected us, and brought us to this moment." Then we dance, for a very long time, around the table upon which rests a single piece of parchment inscribed with one word, the beginnings our new Torah, which in about a year will return to this spot filled with all the words that tell our story.

I want to dance, but keep leaving the circle to look at the word. It appears strong but lonely. It will, over decades, witness tears, joy, grief, laughter, and the lives of people not yet born. In the empty spaces surrounding the word I see the freedom of a blank page, the infinite unknowns and possibilities still to come in my life. I wonder what person I will be once the Torah has been written and rests in its home in our Ark.


Note: This happened yesterday, and is the first time in our very long institutional memory that my synagogue has commissioned the writing of a Torah. It's an amazing thing.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

217. Sefer Torah, part 1

It's not a holiday, but the sanctuary is filled with hundreds of people: adults sitting in chairs along the back perimeter, children and parents on the floor, and a steady of hum of conversation that's focused on a raised platform right in the middle. The rabbis come up front, and the cantor begins to sing: "Odekha ki anitani..." "I will give you thanks, for You have answered me... " We rise and face the Ark as, one by one, a procession of men and women remove each of twelve Torot and begin to walk around the sanctuary and among the sitting, standing, anticipating crowd. Some of the scrolls are undressed, unrolled, and held open. Others--those worn and passul, not suitable for reading--observe without comment, embraced tightly in their holders' arms like elderly, honored members of the family.

A girl standing at the first open scroll begins to read the beginning of the first book: "Bereshit barah Elohim..." The rabbi says a few words of welcome, and we sing the exclamation of Jacob in Genesis 28:17: "How awesome is this place!" The rabbi walks over to the second open scroll, and a teenage boy reads the last verse in the book. Then he hands me the yad, and I chant the first line of the next one: "V'eleh, shemot b'nai Yisrael...", "These are the names of the children of Israel..." "Ozi vezimrat Yah," we sing, from Exodus 15:2, "God is my strength and song." The rabbi speaks once again, and we move on to the third scroll and the last verse of Exodus. And so on around the room, until we've read and sung words from all five books. "Hazak, hazak!" we proclaim, after the final syllable of the very last line.

Our attention shifts to a large screen at the right of the Ark. A man with a video camera hovers above the platform, his camera trained on long sheet of parchment. We watch the screen as he tries to focus, and suddenly the outline of a word appears through the blur: Bereshit. "In the beginning." I gasp--we all gasp. Creation is being enacted right before our eyes. The very first letters of the Torah, written on a scroll that will rest in our Ark, on parchment to be underlined, one day, by a yad I might hold, waits for a sofer, a ritual scribe, to pour the flesh and breath of life into its letters.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

216. Burrowing

As I listened to the Torah reading this morning and tried to imagine Abraham's life as he journeyed to an unknown place, I envisioned a vast, arid desert landscape interrupted by the quick trail of a little animal burrowing beneath the dunes. Sometimes it comes up for air, tiny dark eyes blinking in the unfamiliar light as it tries to comprehend life above millions of grains of sand. Mostly it concentrates on advancing from one place of safety to the next, a small, moving bump of earth the only marker of its existence.

We are that animal, I think, although I don't mean to suggest that survival is a constant struggle. Those few moments in the sun are more than just occasions to emerge and breathe--they herald the light and understanding that mark the best parts of our story. At other times, though, we stay buried in the sand, the lesser bits of life threatening to drown us if we don't have energy to push them away. At services today my mind wandered to the d'var Torah I'm writing for Parashat Tetzaveh, the week before Purim. (Members of the congregation are invited to write a one-page "word of Torah," thoughts based on the weekly portion, for distribution to the entire community. I've never done one of these before.) I chose this parasha because it's right before my mother's yahrzeit; had I given it more thought, I might have picked a section further from the eye-glazing sacrifice/genealogy/skin disease category. OK, no skin diseases in Tetzaveh. But the copious details about priestly vestments and dimensions of the altar might as well be grains of sand, obscuring the story line and blinding me to the meaning hidden behind all those words.

I've started to read discussions of this portion, most of which focus on the high priest's breastplate, the ner tamid (the "eternal light" above the Ark), or the symbolism of incense. But I think I'll write about how we're so often unable to see the bigger picture, the truth of a situation, because of the all the little distracting details that intrude and send us burrowing down false paths. I fall into this trap quite often. Sometimes I hate that I'm most comfortable with the smaller parts of a thing, the punctuation and individual notes (which is why I'm a graphic designer and, yes, a chanter of Torah), over which I can obsess so much that I'll ignore the melody. Tetzaveh is also read during the week before Purim, a holiday about hiding and revealing. (I've already found one commentary that makes this connection--I'm sure there are many more.)

I'm looking forward to letting these ideas simmer until sometime in February, when I'll no doubt wait until the last possible minute before the deadline to write them down.

Friday, November 11, 2005

215. Sarah

I've finally begun to understand the emotional rhythm of the annual cycle of holidays and Torah readings. (Prior to becoming involved at my synagogue, the only pattern I noticed from year to year was a recurrence of excellent meals at Rosh Hashonah.) The Yamim Nora'im cycle from hope to despair to joy, a high note that continues as we read about the creation of the universe. It dips when we get to the Flood, God's own emotional rollercoaster, but redemption remains just a parasha or two away. Humankind would never get anythying done, however, if these mood swings continued. So from Noach's drunkenness onwards (so much for being "blameless in his generation"), the cast of characters settle into lives of steady pettiness, jealousy, vanity, evil, and other usual, unflattering human traits.

I've been thinking about Sarah, in particular. We focus on her bravery and strength, but--even though I know, thanks to the reading I'm doing for this course, that she was acting in accordance with the legal and cultural norms of the time--I really don't like her very much. I can't get over the Hagar business; how can anyone be so mean as to turn away her own son and the selfless, powerless woman who bore him?

She can because we can; she was also human. Last night, as the rabbi spoke of Lekh Lekha and the same ideas about self-inflicted boundaries that I pondered a few days ago, I got a little bored. Yeah, I've heard this before. Stop bugging me; I know what I have to do. I had the same reaction when the Bar Mitzvah boy read an essay about the importance of accepting our flaws and mistakes. Then I thought about how much I always forget, year after year, and need to repeat these lessons. The annual return of Parashat Lekh Lekha is a nudge to pay attention and get out of myself, and remember that I'm no more or less human than those archetypes whose traits, for better or worse, I've inherited.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

214. Ushpizin

Last Saturday night, after my palms stopped sweating over the Torah reading, a friend and I went to see Ushpizin, a small, sweet movie about a family of religious Jews in Israel and the very unorthodox pair of guests ("ushpizin," a Sukkot tradition) who come to visit. We agreed, afterwards, that the film was unusual because it didn't fall into the trap of presenting their lifestyle as a novel oddity, but rather a fact requiring no justification. Stories of people who live far from the mainstream too often concentrate on how different they are from the rest of us rather than on the basic struggles we all share.

That said, the most important character in the movie was their crowded, poverty-stricken community, where all aspects of life, all hours of the day, centered upon religion. It was clear from the first scene that our protagonists would cease to exist outside of it; it was their breath and sustenance. The husband was a ba'al teshuvah, newly and fervently observant. I can imagine how this path one day presented itself to him and demanded to be followed, and how he longed to be in that land, on those streets, and didn't feel whole until he arrived. I can imagine it, but can't feel it. My life has not been without holes, sometimes even big ones, but they've been filled, more or less, by the particular object of desire or a messy but workable substitute. Floating often in the soup has been a generous dollop of guilt: why not walk a little closer to the edge of the cliff like a real artist, like a person with a social conscience? Sometimes I do, but more often I choose comfort and lack of drama.

I'm going to Israel with my synagogue in a few weeks, my first trip ever. I never really wanted to go before. For many years I just didn't care, and for others I felt unworthy of planting my feet on its soil. And, as I've become aware during a class I'm taking on the forces that have tied its people to their land, I've always believed, deep down, that everybody, all of them on each side of the conflict, were nuts to remain. Why do they, like Abram in Lekh Lekha, persist in going out, going far, going to themselves, within such a beautiful but broken place? I've never experienced this kind of life threatening, death-defying yearning, and it doesn't make sense to me. I wonder, sometimes--idle wonder, speculation without desire, because I feel no need to create holes where they don't exist--what different dimensions my life might have if ever I felt this level of need. I can't wait for the trip, am truly thrilled to be going--but I think my friends are more excited for me than I am. I don't understand Israel and so am wary, even though her language and stories have become a major part of my life. It's confusing.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

213. Children's service, part 2

Everyone started to talk and laugh about rainbows, but the room became quiet (as much as a room full of pre-schoolers can) as soon as the cantor removed the velvet covering from the sefer Torah.

He sat down on a chair and held the scroll vertically by the two Etzei Chayim, the wooden rollers, so that everyone could see. This is no easy feat, since it's heavy and quite unwieldy when rolled all the way to the Bereshit (Genesis) side. As is the custom at the kids' service, I got down on my knees on the floor right in front and started to read, the service leader wedging a portable mic between me and the Torah. Thank goodness I wasn't wearing a short skit, since all the kids would be able to see right up it. It's a really strange position for any task, let alone chanting Torah, and even more so when the cantor himself is hovering right above you, watching you move that yad from word to word. Well, I thought, at least he wasn't in the sanctuary a few minutes ago. (But of course everything is recorded, so he can hear my stumbles any time he might choose. Maybe he won't.)

I started reading, and after a moment or two the cantor said something, very softly. I couldn't hear him over the noise of the room, so decided: when in doubt, just keep going. He spoke again, this time a little louder: "End it." End what? What did this mean? Did it have some religious significance? Were the syllables even in English? I could not, as I was trying to concentrate on the melody that went with "a fire of pleasant odor" in any way parse the phrase. Then, suddenly, I understood; he wanted me to stop reading. These were little kids, and Noah's Ark is a long story. I had no idea how far I was from the end of the sentence, but decided that God would forgive me if I picked a random word for the melody that signaled the end. I chose "lev"--heart--which sounded symbolic of something, although I had no idea what.

I stood up. "Say yasher koach [congratulations]!" yelled the cantor. ""Yasher koach!" screamed the kids. He gave me a contrite smile. "Sorry... they're only used to hearing three verses..."

"No problem!' Although it would have been nice to know beforehand. But being in a room filled with children was truly in the spirit of Noach--a word that shares the same root as "rest," the whole reason we have Shabbat. And it was just the right taste I needed of the world to come after feeling certain that my struggles with the trop had added significantly to the imperfection of this current one.

Monday, November 07, 2005

212. Children's service, part 1

My chanting experience on Saturday, however, did offer some fun in addition to all the angst and sweaty palms. I returned to my seat and tried to regain my composure, and suddenly heard a little voice in my left ear:

"Can you come read at the children's service? Now?"

Crouched in the aisle was one of the family program administrators, who must have been waiting to race over as soon as I left the bima. The cantor usually chants for the kids, but sometimes he doesn't. I have no idea why. I had read at the children's service twice before, both times with a few days' notice, so this request took me by surprise.

Good, I said to myself--I'll have another chance to get it right.

So I ran out of the sanctuary with the administrator, and into a chapel filled with a few dozen dancing, singing, and randomly jumping around girls and boys under the age of six, and their parents. They were in the midst of parading the sefer Torah around the room, the cantor pounding away on a piano and the service leader, a rabbinic student, yelling above the happy confusion that in just a few minutes they'd hear all about Noah's Ark.

The cantor stopped playing and began to unroll the scroll. He turned to the kids, who seemed ready to explode with excitement.

"Have you ever seen a rainbow?" he asked, bellowing over the din.

"Yes!" said a voice from the crowd. "Last night!"

"You saw a rainbow at night?" said the cantor, laughing. "Really?"

Sunday, November 06, 2005

211. Three minutes

Of course, as I realized afterwards, those three minutes sounded not nearly as awful as I imagined. I pronounced the words correctly, which counts for more than the tune. And I've learned to keep going no matter what, a tactic that masks a world of problems. I can separate the singing part of my body from the nervous part; my throat no longer closes up, my breathing remains strong, and I'm able make nice sounds even amidst all sorts of irrational inner turmoil. This gives the illusion that I'm in control when I really am not. People shook my hand and offered congratulations, and I know I gave a good performance. But I had fallen short of the mark. Whether I had been stricken with confusion in awe of the words themselves, or was simply overwhelmed by insecurity, I still believe I failed at the task of singing those lines in a manner befitting their importance and glory.

I want to chant with confidence so that I may fulfill both the spirit and letter of the honor to which I've been entrusted. I thought about approaching the rabbi with my questions, but what's he going to say? Relax, don't get nervous, chill. You'll be fine. And then he'll go back to the life and death issues from which I've just wasted his time. Nor do I want seem like a nervous wreck trying to curry compliments, which is how I sometimes feel. The next time I chant, I'll be more realistic and less full of myself, and read a shorter portion. If I'm at all worried, I'll ask the cantor if I can take a look at the scroll prior to Shabbat so I can see the words in their native form. I need to remember that my life is not about those three minutes, but what happens in all the spaces between--the rest of my actions and choices, upon which I will ultimately be judged.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

210. "Leave the Ark."

(Interrupting Simchat Torah, once again.)

Outside my window right now is nothing: fog, a wall of white wrapped around my building. New York City could be gone, tohu vavohu ("without form and empty," Gen. 1:2), for all I know. But I'm not worried, since I'm connecting wirelessly to the Internet; technology is playing the role of Noah's dove. The three aliyot I chanted yesterday came right after that part: "And God spoke to Noah, saying "Leave the Ark..." I had practiced it a million times, but it hadn't really "set" (see Jello-O analogy, below), wasn't yet ready to withstand the assault of my nerves. Most of the time I'm able to choose, consciously or unconsciously, to remain calm when I chant Torah, and can channel anticipation and excitement into the energy of concentration. But on Shabbat morning, impeded by a mix of insecurity and awe at the words I would be reading, I could not. I walked up the bima shaking, in a cold sweat. I gave myself a pep talk: hey, you've led High Holy Day services! You've even led them without a voice, and were OK! So of course you can read three paragraphs in front of all these people. Get over it.

I didn't. The first aliyah went fine. The rabbi whispered "Beautiful!" when I finished, which only made me more nervous. I stumbled a little in the second aliyah and began to dread the third, the most difficult of the bunch. I looked at its first line and couldn't remember the trop, which I had sung in my sleep the night before. I took a deep breath and everything came back, but then my eyes began to play tricks; even with the yad leading my way, I was unable to find the beginning of the next line once I ended the previous one. The line breaks, as usual, were different from my tikkun, the words in unfamiliar places, which suddenly seemed very confusing. I felt myself slipping into panic, and continued to lose the trop. Both rabbis, one on each side of the bima, started singing softly--wonderful, except they used slightly different melodies, and so I couldn't discern either. I continued, finding landmarks on the road, big signs that said: "Familiar word! Familiar tune! Go!" So I did, presaging Lekh Lekha, next week's parasha. By the time I reached the end, I was racing to leave this land I no longer liked very much.

Friday, November 04, 2005

209. The scroll


We danced in frenzied, ecstatic circles until I was dizzy. As the music grew louder and faster and we went around for the thousandth time, the woman holding the sefer Torah in the center of our group caught my eye. She held out the scroll to me, and began to remove her tallit.

Sometimes people appear in your lives just when you need them. it was the same woman who, a few years earlier, I sat next to during the very first Shabbat morning service I attended at my synagogue. Back then I thought she was from another planet; now I was the one about to jump through space and time. As we continued to shake and sway and spin, she guided me into the center of the circle, draped the tallit over my shoulders (the custom is never to approach or touch a scroll without wearing one) and gently placed the sefer Torah in my arms.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

208. Jell-O

I still, unfortunately, have no time to write anything of substance, and will be working late into the night. (Which for a self-employed person is much better than the alternative, so I'm not really complaining.) Since this blog is all about chanting, I feel obliged to note that yesterday I feared, for the first time since I started doing this a few years ago, that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I was given one week to learn an entire column of Torah, an amount that took me three weeks this summer. I panicked; being unprepared is not an option. I decided to take advantage of the fact that I don't have a boss (except for myself, which is why I work way too hard), and spend a few hours this afternoon practicing my portion over and over and over again. I feel much better now, and will swear off any more marathon learning for at least a few weeks. By tomorrow I hope those 24 verses will migrate from the short-term, tip-of-the-tongue part of my brain and settle into the humming-it-in-the-shower-because-I can't-get-it-out-of-my-head section. Preparing to chant reminds me of making Jell-O. It sets when it sets, and you can't rush the process.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

207. Still way behind

...with life, work, and sleep, and looking forward to that elusive caught-up state when I can sit in Starbucks in the company of a four-million-calorie espresso brownie and write about Simchat Torah and Yom Kippur for a few hours.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to learn 24 verses of Parashat Noach for this Shabbat. (I originally agreed to half that much, but don't know how to say no. To reading more Torah.) I've concluded, happily, that it's much easier to learn the words for "beasts of the ground" and "birds of the sky" than those pertaining to sacrifices and skin diseases, the sections I usually get to do over the summer.

These are the most positive and optimistic verses I've been fortunate to sing: we leave the ark and learn that God will continue giving us second chances, and then the promise is sealed, on both sides, with a rainbow. I can think of no better words with which to begin my next year of chanting.