Saturday, December 30, 2006

433. Not alone

I wasn't feeling well last night and had to skip services, which made me sad. I yearn all week long for Friday night, and the singing, dancing, and company of a few hundred of the best people in the world, although sometimes the idea of sitting with nothing but music and my thoughts for an hour and a half seems unbearable. But I can't imagine being anywhere else. Services are the best and safest place I know to experience joy or despair, concentration or distraction; Kabbalat Shabbat is never less than sanctuary for me in all senses of the word.

But it doesn't work as well when you have a stomach ache. I stayed home and lit candles instead, which I often skip. (In cat-endowed New York City, I know God would also advise against the folly--the sheer stupidity--of leaving home while a fire is burning.) I sat on the sofa for awhile and watched them sway and glimmer, and then davenned Arvit. I've prayed this service on my own before and it always felt like a novelty, superfluous: God already knew what was in my heart, so why bother following rituals whose main purpose was to engage groups? And singing to myself when I was alone: like a falling tree without an audience, did it really matter?

This time it did. As I faced east towards Central Park and Jerusalem and my eyes traced letters and watched them change into words, I thought of the tunes, sighs, and smiles just like my own at this very same moment wherever Jews chose to congregate. I felt far from those people and places, but with them, deeply, as well. I was relieved; always in the back of my mind lurked a doubt that I'd wake up one day and would no longer believe, would be back to the hollower, blinder person I was before I stumbled upon my synagogue. I now understand that distance, whether physical or emotional, will never break my bond. It might loosen, perhaps, or try to slip off, but the threat will always be hollow. I felt connected like a twin who always senses the presence of the other even when they're on opposite ends of the earth; the candles bathed my walls in the light of many more Jews than could ever fit in my apartment.

I watched the flames and read Psalm 97:

Your lightning illumines the globe, fire consumes Your foes.
Mountains melt like wax in Your presence, the earth trembles.

The heavens proclaim Your righteousness;
all people behold Your majesty.

They were right in front of me--the dancing illumination, the melting wax mountains--just like so many other gifts I choose to ignore, or am afraid to see.

Friday, December 29, 2006

432. Mitzrayim

Please join me in sending out your prayers, refuah shleimahs, good vibes, etc. to Rachel at Velveteen Rabbi. I know a little too well the kind of mitzrayim she writes about at Radical Torah. I was very glad to read her words about God's partnership during such unexpected journeys, and echo her wishes for a new year in which we never feel alone--because we never are, an amazing gift.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

431. RIP, G3

My laptop died last night. Condolences accepted, although its demise was not sudden. It was six years old and I basically had to kick it, hold my breath, and pray each time I wanted to turn it on. So I rarely shut down--except last night, right before its final sleep. In a last-ditch attempt at CPR, at 2AM I made an appointment online to drag it at 8AM to the 24/7 "Genius Bar" at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store. Which was kind of fun... unshowered, in sweats, I felt like a native alien amidst the hyper, early-rising tourists. Little kids sat on beanbag chairs playing video games on iBooks. Over in the corner a big group of senior citizens were learning, from a really young, really loud guy, how to create movies and blogs with iLife. I have no doubt the store is this lively even at 4AM, in an only-in-New-York kind of way. They really do have Geniuses at the Bar, however, and everyone's very nice.

I lost nothing important, thank goodness, since the laptop's contents were backed up on my work computer and Google Docs. An old file of blog post ideas bit the dust, but probably for the best... if I still hadn't written about it since making a note last January, it couldn't have been important. Another cheap, old, used iBook is in the mail at this very moment, thanks to Until it arrives, no client presentations and probably fewer posts. I have a hard time writing at my work computer; it feels like work. The sofa or Starbucks with my laptop does not.

I do remember the final note I made on that vanished document:


(To be continued.)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

430. Coffee table

So in a few weeks I'm beginning an occasional hevruta, with my old Torah chanting teacher and a friend also immersed in learning how to chant, to study this massive tome:

Chanting The Hebrew Bible: The Art of Cantillation, by Joshua Jacobson

The book is 965 pages, each packed with passages like:

The level two dichotomy separates the two clauses of submission from the clause of benediction. The level three dichotomy separates the clause of "dropping" from that of "bowing." In the tevir clause the verb is followed by three complements. The terminator tevir is preceded by its conjunctive, merekha; its remote conjunctive, kadmah, and its tertiary remote, telishah.

At present I understand absolutely none of the above. It is, like the "Seinfeld" episode, not merely a coffee table book but the entire table itself. (Actually, the Shulchan Arukh, the "Set Table," an exhaustive 16th century catalogue of Jewish law, isn't a bad comparison.) There's too much information in this veritable Talmud of cantillation for one person to absorb in a lifetime; maybe between the three of us we'll de-mystify a few pages. The marble-slab-like publication has sat on my shelf for a year, mostly collecting dust, except for two months ago when I was chanting a verse (Gen. 5:29) that featured one little word (zeh, meaning "this") mysteriously crowned by two trop markings. How could fourteen notes be stretched across one, count 'em, one syllable? Plus the pairing of those two symbols was like stripes and polka dots--they simply did not go together. I checked a few different sources; all included the two, without explanation. And then one day, the slap-my-forehead moment: aha, Jacobson would know! He did, although finding where in the book took about as much time as it did to learn the entire aliyah. But there it was, on p.417--yes, it's a rare case (three instances in the entire Torah). Yes, sing them both. And so I did, after which people came up to me and said, "Wow! What was with the zeh?"

Why do I want to learn this stuff? What impact does it have one my daily life and the state of the world? I have no idea, but it's fascinating and I can't get enough. I look forward to many other conundrums solved in the course of our possibly endless course of study.

Monday, December 25, 2006

429. Peace

With the psalmist's wishes for peace that I'll send out soon via this year's holiday card, at left (featuring a photo I took last year in Israel and which is being printed about three weeks too late, of course), I hope all who celebrate this holy day are happy and safe with friends and family. And that the rest of us are enjoying Chinese food and a movie, or whatever, and awaiting a new year that brings out the best in ourselves and everyone around us.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

428. Compassion

I started writing this post Friday morning when I got back home after a funeral. I really want people around me to stop dying. I didn't know her; her son is a friend from my synagogue, and from the hespedim (eulogies) I learned that she was tough, opinionated, and invited all the friends in her life to become family. I didn't know her, but I miss her anyway. (I await with impatience the arrival of those seven babies; it's the least God can do for us this week after taking yet another good person.)

Once again I listened to the rabbi sing El Maleh Rahamim, the one prayer that stuck with me after all those years away. I hear it only during Yizkor and funerals; some synagogues sing it weekly, which doesn't seem right. Like Kol Nidre, it should be meted out only on special occasions.

It's the saddest melody I've ever heard. Most Ashkenazic-flavored prayers, full of minor thirds, plaintive wailing, and slow, heavy cadences, blur together in an indistinct wash of memories from my childhood. But this one left a mark. That first Yizkor after I joined my synagogue--it must have been during Passover, 1999--the first few notes of El Maleh were like an electric shock, dredging up sadness, longing, confusion, and a whole palette of feelings I really didn't want. Eventually I came to appreciate the gift, given in a room filled with love and tears, of this sudden, safe immersion. The cantor at my synagogue, unlike most cantors, sings it gently, compassionately, and without histrionics, like a whisper from beneath the folds of his tallit.

I was able to find two versions of the prayer online. (It seems almost blasphemous to listen to this as entertainment--I invite those who click on the links to do so with peace and reverence.) The first version (click on "Hören" at the lower right to download and play the RealAudio file), on a site about the Holocaust, contains extra words in memory of those who perished, and I'm guessing is sung by a man who himself suffered great losses.

The second (click on "soundfiles/rahamim.rm"; there's some speaking before the singing begins) is slicker and a bit melodramatic (i.e., traditional), but quite moving nevertheless.

Friday, December 22, 2006

427. Yom Kippur 5767, part 6

(Continued from here.) I realized I never finished writing about the High Holy Days. Perhaps recalling that sacred time will stop me from whining to everyone and his uncle about my cold.)

I walked the ten blocks home after Musaf amazed that the world was still going on, that people rushed and shopped and street vendors hawked tacos and Italian ices even though I was fasting. I felt like I was onstage in a play where the background changed for each scene; it might look like I moved from place to place, but in reality I was quite stationary. Most of me, aside from my actual body, remained in the earlier moments of prayer that had just passed. I nodded hello en route to a dozen equally dazed friends coming back from different shuls.

Back in my apartment, I sat on the couch and picked up the book I had set aside for just these few hours: The Ineffable Name of God: Man, a collection of achingly beautiful poems in Yiddish and English written by Abraham Joshua Heschel when he was in his 20s. I read three pages, was awed, and promptly fell asleep. I awoke with a start and realized my brain could hold no further enlightenment. I sang through Minha once again, instead, and suddenly it was time to go back.

We gathered in the little room next to the church's cavernous sanctuary, the rabbi, musicians, and I, and chatted about TV, cough drops, and other inconsequential topics. Most us didn't have an easy fast; some of us almost fainted. We seemed awfully giddy, considering the imminent culmination of the entire day's drama. Better, I guess, to face God with chutzpah and a smile than be distracted by our own exhaustion while trying to rush past those closing gates.

(Continued here.)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

426. Seventh night

I am coughing and sneezing and generally crabby, and words fail me. So, instead, the view out my window this evening:

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

425. Pinch of salt

The Velveteen Rabbi's astute and beautiful post about prayer as cooking, and the shaliah tzibur as a chef who decides when to add a little more spice or simmer, instead, for the comfort of the congregation, got me thinking about how I pray. On the one hand, services at my synagogue are traditional; we follow Conservative liturgy, all in Hebrew. Within that framework, however, change is constant; melodies, harmonies, personalities and pairings of prayer leaders shift on a weekly basis. It's not a democracy, and all decisions are made by clergy without benefit of a ritual committee. But congregants are close partners, with our input happening at the moment of prayer--and since the rabbis and cantor pray with us, not at us, they can improvise to fit the mood as needed. Fixed prayer becomes fluid, fluidity predictable. In many ways our style of worship goes against all prevailing wisdom about how to make people comfortable during religious ritual--and yet people show up, lots of them.

I'm reminded of my painting studies in college (while pursuing that most practical of majors, Art). I decided, as a freshman, that I didn't like color; there was just too much to think about. I only wanted to create in black and white. So I stretched this as far as possible: huge charcoal drawings, tiny, detailed pen and ink studies, panoramic landscapes rendered with 15 different weights of pencil and 12 varieties of eraser. The world of black and white seemed endless. Eventually I had to surrender to oils and acrylics, and did make peace with Alizarine Crimson and Cerulean Blue. But nothing was ever as much fun as pencil on paper.

Sometimes constraint--ritual--can be the best fuel for creativity. Shlihei tzibur and congregants alike at my synagogue honor each others' role in the process and share unusual levels of trust: the congregation in our service leaders, to keep prayer fresh and challenging within a fixed liturgy; and leaders in each other and in the congregation, to allow space for taking chances and for honest, immediate responses. Some people find the whole thing very weird and foreign, and prefer less surprise. Others assume it's all scripted, the work of some distant master chef. It's hard to imagine such rich flavors could arise organically, with pinches of salt added by the customers themselves--yet they do.

I've always been attracted to this kind of tension... do I follow the recipe, or invent my own? I want to take the easy way out, yet hate to cede control. For whatever reason, the flavor of prayer at my synagogue--the stock of the soup, the blend of spices, and the particular freedom I have to stir it myself--satisfies both of these opposing sets of tastebuds.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

424. Abrupt

I led another shiva minyan tonight. Something strange is in the air; two weeks ago we had four deaths, but last week (among various parents and grandparents) six births. And then this week, five more deaths. Maybe the universe will be symmetrical and seven babies will arrive over New Year's. I hope so.

This woman's father died suddenly last week. At the previous minyanim I led, tables were set and books carefully shelved; maybe those families found solace in cleaning while awaiting the inevitable. This apartment, in contrast, was filled with piles of newspapers, love, and numbness. People wandered in and out. A few hundred snapshots, from old scalloped black-and-whites of carefully coiffed hairdos to Polaroids of a grandfather captured in motion blur as he pushed a gleeful infant on a swing, were strewn across the dining room table like the crime scene of a life abruptly pulled into a tight embrace. They didn't have a minyan at first, although people had been visiting all day; for awhile I wondered if they'd cancel the service. Then a friend got on the phone and called more friends, and I understood that they would have recruited strangers on the street if needed. Having a minyan, for this family, was like wearing shoes in winter; there was no choice. Grief wasn't supposed to be lonely.

A friend of the bereaved, wanting to make sure her loved ones were in good hands, once again quizzed me in the nicest possible way about my non-rabbi credentials. Just like the other two times, I hear myself talking calmly and slowly and see clenched shoulders drop, iron faces soften. My role is to be neutral, quick, and quiet, and pay complete attention. I wonder why the other sister doesn't speak, and who's the man in the crocheted kipa? I feel like a nosy sponge. The daughter looks me right in the eye and cries for ten minutes as she speaks about a father who, each and every day of her life, told her she was beautiful. I feel guilty--who am I, a stranger, to merit the gift of such honesty? The least I can do is be authentic in return. I try. I give a 30-second d'var, hoping that sharing of memories during shiva is like the lighting of Hanukkah candles at this darkest time of year, a promise of the return of light and comfort. I tell her how blessed I am to get a glimpse of this wonderful man. My words feel scripted and inadequate.

But now I understand what the rabbi said about a house of mourning as a kind of twilight zone, a bridge between worlds upon which outsiders are privileged to step. I used to be scared of this place. As a service leader, my task to impose some order on the messy business of sadness, I feel like we've reached a truce. Maybe this sense of peace will follow me when I'm the one crossing the bridge, whatever chasm it might span.

Monday, December 18, 2006

423. Wild wedding

One more question: why do I so love this version of Lekha Dodi?

Lecha Dodi R. Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz--Breslov Hassidism

(Yes, the page is in Hebrew--PC users, click on the upper left arrow. Mac users and others for whom a non-functioning audio player pops up, click on the upper left "Quality Audio" link. On my computer this added two links to the player. The link on the right will download a Zip file of a .wma that you can open with Windows Media Player.)

(And here are many other wonderful takes on Lekha Dodi from that same great site.)

We've often sung the slower first half of this exultant melody at my synagogue on Friday nights, but only recently added the second part (about 6' 13" sec. into the recording). We do it much faster than in this version, which I can't help but imagine is performed by a bunch of men in black hats and long beards shuckling in front of an old-fashioned microphone on a rickety wooden table in their 19th-century beit midrash. These sweet, vulnerable voices rejoice and plead at the same time: welcome, Sabbath Bride, and don't ever leave!--even though we know you must. We always dance at the end of Lekha Dodi to a rotating cast of ecstatic, Sephardic-tinged melodies, transporting the Moorish-style Sanctuary back to its real home of sand, colorful rugs, and lots of wine. But this melody takes me instead to a wild wedding somewhere in deepest Brooklyn, everyone a little giddy and drunk on Slivovitz. On Friday the tune seemed to bathe us all in a Shabbat glow, even though the sun had set; no one wanted to go back to their seats.

I hear music like this, accessible to the entire universe in this "Year of You," and wonder when the rest of the world will discover it, retire all those other dirge-like versions of Lekha Dodi, and start having as much fun on Friday nights as I do.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

422. Some questions

Why has someone else in France (or maybe it's the same Google searcher as before) stumbled upon "on chanting" en route to "rabbi fever"? Why did eight people over two days last week, from all different parts of the country, find me by typing "kumbaya definition"?

How's the health of the friend or relative of whomever searched for "heart attack during Shabbat service"? A refuah shleimah (get well soon) to you.

I guess some things in this life are meant to remain mysteries.

I just added a new item to the left side of this page: the JTA Jewish news RSS feed. Why? Because I thought it was cool that I could, and seeing it every day will force me to read Jewish news (or at least the headlines). The JTA ("Jewish Telegraphic Agency") is a wonderful organization that's been gathering and disseminating global Jewish news since 1917 from across the entire spectrum of political and religious beliefs.

Last question of the morning: why did I wake up with a sore throat? Better now than right before major holidays involving singing, I guess. But, feh.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

421. Rededication

The other night on a repeat of "Grey's Anatomy," Meredith is wooed by Finn and McDreamy, her two boyfriends. It's fun, although stressful. But McD realizes he will inevitably cause her pain, and bows out of the race. And then Meredith sees the truth: McD is "the one," not only because he's willing to give her up out of love, like in the Solomon story, but also because the thought of really, truly living without him seems impossible.

This week I also engaged in an exhausting struggle with Jacob's angel (metaphorically--the problem, alas, has nothing to do with handsome actors, doctors, or any other similar creatures on heaven or earth). I don't usually find midrash in TV shows, but yesterday realized that the answer might, just might, be the thing I was trying to push away. I may be wrong--but even if so, the insights I gained during the wrestling match make me want to sit back, light candles, and rededicate. It's worth a celebration.

And so I had one this morning, chanting the maftir for the first Shabbat of Hanukkah. It's not the most interesting part of the story, but makes me very happy nevertheless. I love singing the actual word "hanukkah" at the end and then repeating "nasi ehad layom" ("one chieftain each day") in succeeding triumphant tropes, as if to make sure everyone knew that everyone would get a chance. They bring the same gifts over and over again, which seems to be just fine with God--as commentary in Etz Hayim notes, although we all pray with the same words, our experience of those prayers, our true offerings, are unique and personal.

But the real reason this portion makes me happy: exactly one year ago at the Kotel, I read the paragraphs that immediately follow. I sing and am back on those steps with all my friends, drawing strength from dusty stones, yellow sunlight on sand, and the souls of thousands of pilgrims who stood on that same spot with their sacrifices, as well as of those who came to discover what their gifts were supposed to be. This morning the rabbi spoke of the tensions of this holiday--confront the complexities of a story about assimilation and guerrilla warfare, or ignore messy details and focus instead on children's games and sepia-tinged nostalgia?--and I will add another: do what's comfortable, or do what's right but very difficult? I hope each night's candles help reveal another facet of this and all our shadowed and complex dilemmas.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

420. Condensed version, part 2

(Continued from the previous post--here's the rest of the outline of my talk last Shabbat, and also the super-condensed version of this entire blog.)


"I joined the choir, and was amazed that I could actually be a part of services.

The music--Jewish music in general--took awhile for me to get used to. At first I didn't like it at all. I was a real snob and thought that only Western music, Bach, Brahms, etc., was any good. But eventually it grew on me.

One day about five years ago my friend C. said, 'I want to learn to chant Torah, and I want my friends to learn with me.' She basically gave us no choice in the matter, and recruited a bunch of us for a class. I had nothing better to do and it sounded interesting, so I went along with it--I never before thought I might like to chant, or imagined why in the world I would want to.

I found it very hard at first. I was used to Western notation, reading notes on a page, and this was very different. I was terrified the first time I chanted; my knees were shaking so hard I thought I'd fall over. But, to my surprise, I didn't feel at all alone at the bima, very different from being on stage--I really sensed the strength of everyone in the room, like they were holding me up. I knew I couldn't have gotten through it if not for their support. This feeling is still with me every time I chant, as if I draw energy from the people who listen. Even if I screw up, which I have, I always feel stronger when I finish than when I started.

Other things I love about chanting Torah:

• It's an actual, visceral connection to thousands of years of Judaism. I can see and touch it on that scroll. I'm part of the river of time when I read. I never before felt so connected to being Jewish.

• I get to sing music of my own tradition that makes me feel as good--but without the guilt--as when I sang Christian sacred music.

• I love the process of learning. Even though it's mostly repetition, it's never boring. It's actually very relaxing and meditative. Life is complicated, but this is straightforward and rewarding: somehow, after practicing my portion over and over again, it always gets stuck in my brain.

• I think what I like most is that I can't be distracted while I chant. It's just me and the words on the scroll. But I also can't focus on the words too much, because then I'll lose the rhythm of memorization and get confused. So I'm caught between two kinds of time--the time of details, and of the big picture. I'm very much in the moment but also apart from it. And in that place I have no choice except to be as honest as possible. There's nowhere to hide.

It's still terrifying at times, but always very profound. Thank you all for letting me share these thoughts."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

419. Condensed version, part 1

This past Shabbat morning I did something new and wonderful: I was the hazzanit for a meditation service. A rabbi at my synagogue, part of the team that leads monthly Friday night mediation services, also teaches a course in Jewish spirituality; this service was for her students.

We sung the first few lines of a selection of prayers, and then sat in silence for a few minutes after each. We also studied this week's Torah portion, and I chanted some verses of Vayishlah. Then I was asked to speak about why I like to chant and how I learned--essentially condensing all I've thought about in this blog (unknown to those at the service) into about five minutes. I really enjoyed the challenge of this process, and was gratified that people wanted to hear what seemed to me like the very self-centered story of my spiritual life. Here's an outline of what I said (written for speaking, so a little stylistically sparse):

"I guess you could describe the way I grew up as halfway Orthodox and not very interested. My father was from Russia and traditionally observant, although out of a sense of obligation more than anything else.

My mother wasn't into it at all. Some things we observed strictly, like kashrut--others not at all, like Shabbat. It worked out fine but was a little schizophrenic, and I was confused.

I went to a very bad Orthodox Hebrew school for six years. Everything was done by rote. I learned nothing and hated every minute.

I got out when I was 12, my parents got divorced, and I didn't sent foot in a synagogue again for years. But I never stopped being kosher, although my mother did; she was thrilled to start eating BLTs. Maybe because I went to Hebrew school for so long, that connection seemed very important to me. But nothing else about Judaism did, and I felt like a hypocrite.

At the same time, I got involved in choral singing. I always knew I would be an artist when I grew up, but music was my big hobby. I think being in a choir was a good counter to the solitude of being an artist.

I hated being on stage, and was shy and self-conscious about anyone hearing my voice--but in a choir I could make music and hide at the same time, as well as be a part of something larger than myself. When I sang in choirs I felt like I was able to touch something magical. It was intoxicating.

The only problem: most of what I sang was Christian sacred music, which I loved--and which made me feel like an even bigger hypocrite, because nice Jewish girls weren't supposed to do this. It felt very subversive. But I did it anyway, and loved it.

Fast forward many years to when I stumbled upon [my synagogue], a whole other story I won't go in to. For me it was the first time ever that I found a kind of Judaism that was relevant and spoke to my life."

(Continued here.)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

418. Jacob, part 2


I remembered the rabbi's suggestion during our class two years ago and prepared a short d'var Torah (or, as he said back then in Ashkenazic style, "Just a little wort...") to offer after the service. Although I've written a few of these, I'd never spoken about Torah in front of a group. It felt very chutzpadik (and in fact I had a conversation with a guest right before we began who zeroed into all my doubts by kindly but insistently demanding to know why I, a mere layperson, had the right to stand in front of the group and pray--I gave him a good answer, and was not unnerved). I was a little terrified it wouldn't make sense, but the family was very appreciative. Here's an outline of what I said:

"In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlah, after Jacob wrestles with the angel and has a dramatic reunion with his brother Esau, he goes back home to Canaan and sets up camp and an altar right outside the city. The great Hassidic commentator the Sfat Emet noted that teachers of old interpreted this line, "He camped in front of the city," to mean that the place was gracious and holy for everyone who lived there. But unlike sacred time, which has been holy from the very beginning, the moment God created the universe, sacred space becomes holy only when good people like Jacob and the Israelites occupy it. [I forgot to mention that this interpretation comes from Art Green, commenting upon the Sfat Emet's commentary.]

I was thinking that by this standard, a house of mourning is one of the holiest places on earth. Everyone who's been here all week brought good memories of love and comfort--that's what fills a place with God. I hope, as this week of shiva ends, you will continue to be able to draw upon and get strength from the holiness you've created together by sharing so much love and comfort in this sacred space."

Being in charge, even though it was just for 45 minutes--making sure everything went according to schedule, announcing pages, trying to act like someone who could offer support--was very profound, and completely different from standing next to a rabbi and singing. A few weeks ago seemed like a dress rehearsal in comparison; this was for real. "I'm an adult now," I thought as I walked back home. It made no sense, but felt a little like that first time I left the Secret Rabbi Room and stepped up to the bima, a fledgling kicked out of the safety of the nest. My challenge now, as always: to figure out what this means in the context of the rest of my life, all the other stuff that has nothing to do with prayer.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

417. Jacob, part 1

(I've barely made a dent my my work since the last post, but I'm taking time to write anyway. So there.)

I got the call last Wednesday to lead another shiva minyan, a third family member of a congregant to die within the week. I'm teaching a friend how to chant; her lesson ended just before the minyan began and we walked over together--until she turned left and I right, so she could attend the other minyan just two blocks away for a different bereaved family. Too much sadness that night in one small part of the neighborhood.

It was the last day of mourning for his father. He wasn't a regular synagogue-goer, but told us he was comforted by the constant buzz of visitors who, each night after the prayer service, offered unfamiliar and sometimes surprising recollections of his dad. Shiva was a way to hold on just a little bit longer. But grasping a memory, he said, was only small consolation compared to hugging an actual, live person, like the early Sunday mornings when he was a kid wrestling and roughhousing with his dad after diving gleefully into his parents' bed before the rest of the house was awake. It struck me as a particularly poignant memory for this week, when we read the story of Jacob wrestling all night long with a mysterious being who gives him a new name, Israel, but won't reveal his own. I think parents and children, like God and the Jewish people, are engaged in a constant wrestling match of love. Sometimes it's painful, sometimes fun, but we all emerge with different names, new identities, and revelations about who we are and what our role should be in this world. The hardest part is knowing when to ignore the pain of battle and simply accept the love and wisdom that, even when cloaked under a long night of darkness, is why we struggle in the first place.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

416. Very good news

I'm not technically affiliated with the Conservative movement, although my practice falls within those lines. But this decision by the Law Committee of the Conservative movement makes me very happy, and is a big step towards granting equal rights to all Jews, and all people, no matter what their sexual orientation:

Conflicting Conservative opinions expected to open the way for gays
By Ben Harris
December 6, 2006

NEW YORK, Dec. 6 (JTA) — The Conservative movement’s highest legal body moved to allow commitment ceremonies for gays and the ordination of gay rabbis.

With the endorsement Wednesday of three conflicting teshuvot, or halachic responsa, by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — two upholding the longstanding ban on homosexuality and one permitting ordination of gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies — it’s likely that other rabbis will now begin performing such ceremonies, comfortable in the knowledge that they enjoy halachic sanction from the movement’s highest legal body. more...

In other, less political developments, I was asked to lead another shiva minyan tomorrow night and on Saturday will be chanting Torah at and helping lead a Shabbat morning service!--not at my synagogue, but at a private meditation class given by one of the rabbis who teach at my synagogue. I was also asked to speak at the service about why I like to chant and how I got started. (I guess I won't have time to read this entire two years' worth of posts.) It's a little daunting, but also very cool, that someone requested these thoughts, as opposed to my usual anonymous flinging out to the universe. In less exciting news, I have enough work for the next two days to keep me busy until June, except I need to finish it all by Friday. So I will forcibly restrain myself from posting again until after Shabbat, much as I hate the thought.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

415. A box

I was reading over my posts about meditation and realizing how negative and snarky some of them are. Mostly I love sitting in silence, but occasionally not. The experience is still new for me, and not without learning curves and growing pains; sometimes my mind just won't shut up, which I know happens to everyone. I've become expert at watching it race past, but hope one day to float with it on a quiet sea, slow as clouds above.

I'm intrigued by the absence of sound during this process. (Although there's usually plenty of noise in my head, which I try my best to ignore.) The quiet continues to remind me of rests in a piece of music, or white spaces between letters in a Torah scroll, but more often conjures up the moments when I'm chanting Torah and feel like I'm in a box. Its walls are the people who surround me; without them I would have no form. The air inside sustaining my breath is the music. As I sing, I can't hear the world beyond the walls at all; it might not even exist. I think this is what meditation is supposed to be, usually called "in the moment" but really so much more--in the self, in the parts of our awareness that are shared with others. Maybe the box is a kind of tabernacle, and as such must occasionally be rededicated and reminded of its holiness.

At the Friday night meditation service a few weeks ago, the rabbi compared Abram's journey into the unknown to the beginning of any new spiritual practice. This time last year I was getting ready to go to Israel, and am now revisiting the Hanukkah Torah portion, the one I read at the Wall, to chant again in a few weeks. That experience did push me onto a new path, did reinvigorate me, although I still have no idea where I'm going. Will chanting those words once again about offerings at the mishkan be my own Hanukkah, my rededication? Will meditation?

(Here's a very good, short introduction to Jewish meditation, which can seem New-Agey compared to established traditions but is in fact a very old practice:

Sunday, December 03, 2006

414. Snore, part 2


The next part of class was study in hevruta (learning pairs) with whomever was sitting to the right. With some horror, I realized that the snoring woman, once she woke up, would be my partner. We were given a text by Rami Shapiro; each of us would comment on it for five minutes as the other listened without interruption, an exercise in being present as much as in exegesis. I began, and she paid rapt attention. Then it was her turn. She didn't talk about the text, although did speak in English, so theoretically I should have understood. I did not. I recall something about the difference between Jews and Christians and why Muslims don't eat meat, but basically she made no sense at all. Time seemed to slow down like in the Star Trek episode, and her voice droned on and on like a car alarm at dawn with no one yet awake to shut it off.

I tried to be mindful and meditative, to live in the moment and remember that all life was a miracle, but just wanted to punch her in the mouth.

I don't know this woman at all; I'm sure she's a good person. I guess I'm not. On the bright side, yesterday at services the rabbi spoke of Jacob's transformation from a wimpy guy who hated the outdoors into a man of strength and deep emotion just like his brother. So when he said to Isaac, "It's me, Esau!" he wasn't lying. He had matured enough to recognize and assert that other, earthier side of himself. (Which, added the rabbi, was why he and Esau would be able to reconcile in next week's parasha.) Maybe God will consider my evil intentions as a marker of growth and continuing character development, rather than adding to my column of lashon hara demerits. Yeah, right.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

413. Snore, part 1

My meditation class is over; it was great, although week three was challenging. It began, as usual, with silence. For days I had been looking forward to sitting in a chair in the middle of an empty Sanctuary and hearing nothing at all. I found a place in the circle, left an empty spot between me and the next person to decrease the chance of distraction, closed my eyes, and focused on my breath. It felt better than a warm bath.

And then I heard it: ssssssh chhhh whooooooo. ssssssh chhhh whooooooo. Over and over again.

The woman next to me was asleep, and snoring. She was also lying on the floor, knees raised and bent and lower legs resting on the seat of a chair in the position assumed by cool, confident meditators who have back problems. Even if I were in pain, I don't think I'd have the guts to be the only upside-down person in a room full of demure normal sitters. I admired the conviction of her individuality, but also wanted to slap a paper bag over her head. No one else seemed to notice the snoring; perhaps I was the only one close enough to hear. I castigated myself for intolerance of the nasally-challenged, and tried to focus. But every time my mind drifted into a zone of peace and calm, the ssssssh chhhh whooooooo, and an occasional snort, jolted me back to reality.


Friday, December 01, 2006

412. In this very place

I subscribe to Sitemeter, and can see which Google search terms lead people to this blog (mostly the word "chanting" and Hebrew phrases like "El Nora Alilah"). The other day I noticed that someone in France found me by typing "rabbi fever." Was that a kind of cultural obsession like "disco fever," I wondered, or more like "dance fever," with the guy who wore really tight pants? Or an illness specific to Jewish leadership (like the search awhile back for "swollen vocal cords clergy")? I clicked on the link that brought this Googler to me, and was amazed to discover I spoke French--I had no idea!--but otherwise gained little insight into the reason behind the query.

But it got me thinking about rabbis. For reasons I don't understand, my parents held teachers, rabbis and their ilk in pretty low regard. I always got the sense that instructing others meant you couldn't do the thing yourself, a very non-Jewish point of view. As a kid, and rabid Star Trek fan, one of my favorite books was "The World of Star Trek" by David Gerrold, in which he divides humanity into three types: creators, producers, and service people. (Why this philosophy stuck with me all these years, I have no idea. But it made quite an impression, maybe because I once equated Gerrold, writer of "The Trouble With Tribbles," with God.) Creators, he wrote, were the best kinds of people. (I sighed with relief, because I knew I'd grow up to be an artist.) Producers--people who made things happen, like my mother, a bookkeeper who kept a business running despite her boss' incompetence, and supermarket managers like my father, who told others what to do and made sure everything was fresh and perfect--were OK, too. Last in the hierarchy were service people, grunts who took care of all the other stuff. I slotted teachers and clergy into this category. What did they do but pass on info and engage in meaningless ritual? You could read books or pray on your own, if need be.

I think this arrogant bias prevented me from taking full advantage of what my teachers had to offer. Once I understood, sometime during high school, how smart they really were, I became intimidated. Teachers suddenly seemed superhuman, possessing of mysterious talents, and I didn't know how to speak to them. I realize now that this misperception never quite went away; even though the rabbis at my synagogue share so much of themselves by allowing me into their world at the bima, I often feel it's not my place to share back. Which is kind of ridiculous, and is limiting the insight and knowledge I could gain from these associations. On this Shabbat Vayetze, as Jacob awakens from a dream of angels and ladders--"Ma norah ha makom hazeh, how awe-filled is this place; God was here but I knew it not"--I hope I can follow his example and truly see, use, and reciprocate the gifts of people and ideas that surround me.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

411. Funeral

As funerals go, it wasn't bad at all. A hundred people crowded into the small chapel and rose occasionally for standing ovations, a fitting tribute to a cabaret singer. Her friends, including a well-known Carol Channing impersonator she met while they were buying dresses at the same shop, got up one by one and spoke about people, process, and performing, Dottie's passions. The journey--learning and rehearsing, drafting the best possible words, struggling to let go of a little control so her real self could shine through--were her favorite parts of life, with being on stage a nice side benefit but really not as important. She was an excellent high school English teacher, they said, but during all those years only wanted to sing. And she finally did, at an age when most women wouldn't be caught dead wearing a tight sequined dress.

I usually don't cry at funerals. I hold everything in for fear of completely unraveling, which happens once I get home. But not crying, this time, seemed disrespectful to Dottie, a woman who worked very hard to express exactly what was on her mind. I cried because I had no more chances to get to know her better and because I never made it to one of her concerts, since I figured she sang words I could read on a Hallmark card. I was, once again, a snob. I listened to her friends speak of Dottie's love of performing and thought about how, until I began to call it "praying," I never wanted people to hear me. Dottie knew all along that praying and performing could be the same, as long as you were honest.

I also cried for fear of not being able to say, one day at the end of my own life, what Dottie told friends the week before she died: I did just what I was meant to do. I didn't miss a thing.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

410. Sigh

I have many things on my list to write about, but life and death take precedence. I wish this post weren't about the latter. Yesterday a gutsy, funny, fiercely independent woman, a member of my business networking group, died after a long battle with cancer. For two years I saw her every Wednesday morning at 7AM, when she joined the rest of we bleary-eyed designers, accountants, insurance agents, and sundry other professionals for breakfast in order to promote a post-retirement career about which she was more passionate than any entrepreneur: cabaret singer and songwriter. While the rest of us gave 45-second "elevator pitches" about customer service and the value of planning ahead, Dottie offered snippets from songs about skewering computers and political correctness. She performed all over the country at conventions, hospitals, retirement homes, and other places where people really needed a laugh. She was no Barbara Cook or Bobby Short, but I don't think they could make people smile any wider than Dottie could.

I had no idea of the gravity of her illness, and felt like someone punched me in the stomach when I got the email. The funeral is tomorrow. Baruch dayan emet. Enough already; the universe is overdue for providing me with some really good news.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

409. Sea monsters

At morning minyan today we enjoyed the non-rushed pace of a holiday and took some time to read Psalm 148:

...Praise the Lord, all who share the earth:
all sea monsters and ocean depths,

fire and hail, snow and smoke, storms which obey His command,
all mountains and hills, all fruit trees and cedars...

I've always loved this simple, straightforward list of natural wonders, sometimes sung to the tune of "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore." Today I was particularly struck by the mention of sea monsters and hail, both terrifying and destructive (was King David imagining the Loch Ness emerging from the Dead Sea?). I doubt thanks would be the first words on my lips if I were pelted by a hailstorm. But, fact is, everything comes from God, the bad as well as the good. Maybe the good can't exist without the bad, or they're somehow linked and balanced. All we can know for certain is that our world is filled with wonders, challenges, passions, and rewards, and so there's no excuse for boredom. For this, for the complexity of monsters as well as the simple, self-evidence of mountains, there is no better response than thanks.

Last night I attended the annual interfaith Thanksgiving service held by a consortium of West Side religious organizations, which this year was at a beautiful Roman Catholic church just two blocks away. (I've lived here for eight years and never once walked down that block!--it was like discovering a new part of the city hidden inside the old one.) Both a minister and rabbi quoted Abraham Joshua Heschel (as I did on this day last year):

"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."

On this Thanksgiving I'm grateful for the good as well as the bad--because I'm here and alive to experience them both, and have the strength to at least try and tame those sea monsters. Wishing all who read this this a wonderful evening of terrific turkey, and a year filled with abundance and peace.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

408. And now for something completely different

Thank you, Regina Clare Jane--my first meme. Just typing these words makes me feel like a card-carrying member of the bleeding edge of Web 2.0 and other bloviated nomenclature I flung about with abandon when I worked in a Silicon Alley loft with a dog, iguana, and dozens of people younger and cooler than I who dressed in black and took breaks from designing websites in order to drink beer, play vintage Frogger, listen to obscure 80s music, and count their stock options.

So I guess that's #1 of "Five things no one knows about me:" I used to be one of those people. Four others, none having to do with chanting or Judaism and all true, even though they might not sound like it:

2. I won a city-wide poster design contest sponsored by the ASPCA when I was 12 and Andy Warhol, and his dog, presented me with the award ($25 and a necklace).

3. I encountered Andy Warhol again four years later when a friend and I crashed an art opening, drank too much free champagne, and got Mr. Warhol to autograph some oranges.

4. I kept the oranges in the refrigerator for the next two years until they shriveled into nothingness, much like Andy himself.

5. I once fainted from eating too much garlic and, in the process, almost drowned in a bowl of soup.

I don't think I can publicly tag three other people, alas, because many of my blogging friends are completely anonymous and don't want to be linked from anywhere... Perhaps I will tag them in private, and the meme will propagate anew.

That felt good. Now back to our regularly scheduled spiritual angst.

Monday, November 20, 2006

407. Pain and comfort

I've written before about my good and challenging experiences attending shiva minyanim. This weekend, for the first time, I led one of these. Awhile back the rabbi taught a few laypeople how to do so, in case there were a bunch of deaths and not enough real leaders available, i.e. the combined dozen rabbis, rabbinic students, and rabbi members of the congregation. It's a short service, not hard at all. The part that got me nervous was inviting and listening to memories of the deceased, and running the overall proceedings. And perhaps saying something Torah-related in hopes of offering a comforting insight. But I knew I could do it if the rabbis believed I could, even though my role to date has been to open my mouth and sing, not speak.

Time passed, and I wasn't asked. In any case, I wasn't prepared; I meant to learn the correct weekday evening nusah (the specific melody that goes with the prayers), but never got around to it. Then I got a phone call on Thursday--could I lead Saturday night? I was too embarrassed to admit I only knew half of havdalah, the prayers at the conclusion of Shabbat; a friend graciously played a tape into my answering machine. I didn't remember until the next day that I didn't know the nusah, so the rabbi kindly and calmly taught it to me over the phone. I tried to think of a few wise words to share having to do with the week's parasha, which opens with Sarah's death--but nothing appropriate came to mind, because I didn't know the deceased.

It went well, if you can say that about an occasion where people have to confront recent, unbearable pain. In a way it was easier for me than being an attendee--I had something to do, some control over the situation, and so felt less helpless and more able to bear the sadness and discomfort in the room. Once again I wished I had known the strong, funny, complicated person who was described with such love by his family, and hoped my parents, for whom I barely sat shiva so many years ago, were watching from wherever.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

406. Out of hiding

I've been thinking a lot about prayer, encouraged in part by these wonderful posts by Mata H as well as the fact that I've been doing so much of it publicly--and am more confused, as a result, than ever before.

I didn't know how to pray until I came to my synagogue. There are many kinds of prayer; for most of my life I ignored them all. Prayer, on the one hand, can be instinctive, happening even when we don't know it. God hears us before we make a sound. Pretty sure, although unwilling to proclaim with certainty, that God was a crock, for many years I banished the idea that my unvoiced entreaties had any point except indulging a comforting fantasy. I was too smart for that. The other kind of prayer is planned, purposeful, and with honest intent (kavannah). This I dismissed as theater of the absurd. Talking to something that doesn't exist--completely nuts.

Then community and music combined to unlock a part of me I never knew before, and suddenly I could pray. It forced me to redefine myself, become more accepting of my own vulnerability as I allowed the words in the siddur to voice wishes and pleas that I was once certain could not be expressed. Just as I was thinking, OK, I have a handle on this, I get the drill, I was asked to sit up front and do it on behalf of of everyone--with a voice I had always kept partially hidden, even while singing as loudly as possible in dozens of groups. The rabbis didn't know this; they had only heard me chant Torah, my first, tentative steps out of hiding. The best sounds I could make, before then, always felt too intimate to allow the rest of the world to hear. I blended perfectly, shielding my identity. I never, ever sang solos. But I couldn't hide while praying; dishonesty at that moment seemed as wrong as murder. I also think I was, and still am, too inexperienced at the art to know how to fake it, like a doctor who hasn't figured out how to keep emotional distance from her patients.

So I continue to learn, which I know will never lead to mastery. I learn not only how to put the drama of my discoveries in perspective--I'm human, I'm a volunteer, perfection is never possible when trying to talk to God, relax--but also in context with the other 98% of my life. Do I trust in my abilities? How much of myself can I reveal to the world? How naked and honest, confident and self-reliant, can I be? What other cliffs can I jump off, knowing my community will always be around to catch me? Prayer, this intensely personal, private thing, has unexpectedly become my model for real life.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

405. Praying is hard

Sometimes weeks are long, and praying is hard.

Nothing notable happened over the last few days, but everything seemed to take much more concentration than usual. A day or two when I didn't have to pay attention would have been nice. Last night I helped lead services (18th time--chai!--maybe this heralds upcoming luck) as part of a combination I hadn't experienced before: the cantor; the rabbi with the beautiful voice; a drummer who sings wonderful harmonies; and myself. I was intimidated for no good reason by this particular company and worried about singing too much and stepping on toes, but also didn't want to seem too passive. After the holidays I figured I'd be full of confidence if asked to lead again. Not quite, and I really need to fix this, because I'm getting annoyed with myself. I don't believe people when they tell me I sound beautiful. I continue to worry, irrationally, that I will miss a cue, come in flat, and never be asked to do it again. These seem like odd concerns when leading prayer, but part of the life of this service is the layering and trading back and forth of of voices. And none of it is planned.

I was tired; making sounds took a great deal of effort. I couldn't find the key or tempo, and was aware that I was paying no attention to the congregation. I felt lost. I kept thinking, they don't really need me here at all!--the cantor can do it in his sleep. So I should just keep my mouth closed, since I'm not sure what will come out. After the first few minutes, however, I took a deep breath, sat up straighter, and remembered where I was. We sang brand new melodies for two prayers (one learned by me that very afternoon from an MP3 emailed by the cantor... would there have been a Golden Calf, I wonder, if Moses hadn't been out of touch for 40 days and could email those commandments instead?) The four of us up front were mostly in unison, since the new tunes were fast and powerful and didn't lend themselves to harmony. It was just what I needed; every loud note was like a brick added to a buttress that held me up, or an injection of vitamins. By the end of the service I felt fully present, but also sad that I had struggled and lost out on some of the fun. For the rest of the evening I tried, with partial success, to forget about all my perceived little mistakes, aware that I would be less hard on myself if I'd led with anyone but the cantor. And then, when my angst was over and done with, I sat on the sofa and marveled that I get to do this amazing thing. Even after all this time, it still doesn't seem real.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

404. A good season

This weekend I had the wonderful experience of hearing Dr. Susannah Heschel. She speaks as I imagine her father did, with warmth, humor, brilliance and a vulnerability that comes from not being afraid to be honest and human. She covered many topics, but what struck me most were her comments on "spiritual plagiarism"--her father's term for a belief system mired in tradition and unable to acknowledge that faith need not be static, but can evolve and grow in a changing world. She also spoke of the injunction of Hassidic masters, and her father, to celebrate moments of awe and draw upon those memories whenever possible. I thought of my experience praying at the singles retreat as I watched leaves dancing above the skylight. I'm back there every single time I read the Shema, as if magically teleporting through time and space:

If you will earnestly heed the mitzvot that I give you this day, to love the Lord your God and to serve God with all your heart and all your soul, then I will favor your land with rain at the proper season--rain in autumn and rain in spring--and you will have an ample harvest of grain and wine and oil.

In fact, it didn't rain at all at the retreat. And, at the time, I wasn't even sure these words had any relevance at all. I wonder why my brain associates that passage in particular with a day of bright sunlight. But I read the lines and experience astonishment as if brand new, a first moment of standing and praying that welcomed in a good and proper season and a rich harvest for my soul.

Friday, November 10, 2006

403. Kumbaya

This article in a local paper, as my friend Robin's Aunt Shirley might say, really got my panties in a bunch:

"Fighting Sing-Along Services

Is composed synagogue music becoming an object of nostalgia heard only in a museum setting?

That's the fear of numerous experts on Jewish music and worship, but they aren't prepared to surrender quite yet to the guitar-playing song leaders. A three-day conference set for Nov. 12-14, 'Reclaiming American Judaism's Lost Legacy: The Art of Synagogue Music,' including a model service (Sunday at 8 p.m. at Park East Synagogue) and major concert, is their first step in attempting to revitalize what they believe is an embattled worship tradition."

Now, I think this is wonderful. It's gorgeous music that everyone should hear. But I disagree thoroughly with these next comments:

"It is based on the supposed need to have participatory congregational singing, that the congregation should not be ‘sung at’ but ‘singing with,’” [composer Jack Gottlieb] says. 'I'm not altogether convinced that that's the way to achieve a prayerful moment in a synagogue service.'...

'The participatory music . . . has to be by definition the lowest common denominator to have the layman join,' he says. 'What I have witnessed going on does not thrill me. But I’m not the judge, the future is the judge.'

'...Composers whose music has a high aesthetic end have been replaced because of the need for ‘music to make me feel good' [says Mark Kligman of the School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR]."

But... what's wrong with "music to make me feel good"? Isn't that the point of prayer? Are we supposed to sit passively while an expert engages in a religious experience on our behalf, as if we weren't qualified to do so? I don't dispute that hearing beautiful music can take us to amazing spiritual heights, or that listening to the cantor, at times, is preferable to joining in. But singing along doesn't have to be a "lowest-common denominator" experience; we're far beyond humming "Kumbaya" to the strumming of a flat guitar. A simple tune that we create ourselves in partnership with the voices of others can reach the heart much quicker than a display of vocal pyrotechnics. And the music at my synagogue is proof that singable melodies can indeed be of "high aesthetic." The answer, I think, is not to "fight sing-along services" but rather learn from congregations that attract thousands of members with their version of this approach--and not be afraid to embrace a new tradition.

End of rant... and Shabbat Shlaom!

402. Alert...

I'm about to switch this blog to Blogger Beta, which will let me set up categories for posts and other cool (and still free) things. Please join me in sending out a prayer that all my posts don't magically disappear in the process. (I'm sure they won't. I'm just paranoid.)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

401. The ram

This week we read Parashat Vayera, which begins with the mitzvah of hospitality and almost, but not quite, ends with murder, the rudest gesture of all. But God and the angel intervene, Abraham passes the test of faith, and many blessings are bestowed. If you didn't already know the end of the story, you might assume they all lived happily ever after. Nope, those blessings are just a tease. At yesterday's meditation class, we read (in between the silence) Yehuda Amichai's version, which finds the darker, selfish places that are obscured by the light of Abraham's triumph of trust:

The Real Hero

The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,
who didn't know about the conspiracy between the others.
As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a song in his memory--
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.

I want to remember the last frame
like a photo in an elegant fashion magazine:
the young man tanned and manicured in his jazzy suit
and beside him the angel, dressed for a party
in a long silk gown,
both of them empty-eyed, looking
at two empty places,

and behind them, like a colored backdrop, the ram,
caught in the thicket before the slaughter.
The thicket was his last friend.

The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had gone long before.

But the real hero of the Isaac story
was the ram.

--Yehuda Amichai, "The Real Hero"
The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, trans. Chana Bloch & Stephen Mitchell
(Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1996)

This poem is like a pinch of salt that completely changes the flavor of the soup. We talked about the ram as a metaphor for Israel, the thicket as our personal place of denial, and the garish magazine tableau as representing our lack of respect for the nature that shelters so many rams and other innocents in its (non-metaphorical) thickets. But what struck me most were the pairings: Isaac and the angel on one side, God and Abraham on the other, like equals. Why did such a powerful couple abandon their children at the end of the poem? Why were their children's eyes so vacant?

We think of ourselves as God's partners, but that doesn't mean we're equals. Yet we aspire to God-like power and control, believing these are the best tools to shape our destinies. We spend our lives wrestling with states of indecision, like Abraham when ordered to kill Isaac, sure that one choice over another will gain us favor in God's eyes. But maybe the answer isn't so important. Maybe we're simply meant to stumble blindly through the journey, a mindful kind of stumbling just like meditation, acquiring no particular measure of strength or wisdom in the process but making sure to observe as we go along. And if we watch, really watch, as it unfolds, then we'll notice when our attention wanders, see when the emptiness begins to creep in, and it might not be too late to fill ourselves up again with the real substance of life. We'll know better than to go home in the middle of the story, abandoning our children and ourselves in the process. Maybe we'll learn to be like the lamb, the thicket connecting us to rather than hiding us from the rest of the world.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

400. Girl Meets God, part 2

(Continued from part 1.)

But as I kept reading, I realized I was only looking for ways to validate my own prejudices--and there were few. This was a sincere and beautiful story, although I was reminded at times of a friend who goes on and on and on about what she ate for lunch, what this cute guy said, and so forth, instead of getting to the point. You don't stop being friends, but sometimes just want to grab the person by the shoulders and shake. The author's comparisons of Christian and Jewish holidays and her reflections on Talmud were far more interesting to me than the details of her life.

Halfway through the book when I realized, despite the very many words, that she would never explain exactly why she converted, I suddenly felt much closer to this author. I saw a little of myself in her roundabout way of telling the story, her grappling with an acute, indescribable magnificence. Her God--just like herself--lived in more than one religion, and Christianity was her best way to celebrate this awesome mystery. But never does she disparage the religion she left, and she frequently draws upon the wisdom of her first path. I think my initial fear was that this book would be an anti-Jewish polemic; I really appreciated her completely opposite approach.

She describes her moment of revelation as a love that always existed, even when hidden from her. I feel this way about Judaism, a world whose language I didn't possess until I stumbled upon it. And then it fit perfectly. Part of me is a little afraid that one day it won't, the same terror of possible abandonment I felt after 9/11. But the rest of me knows that as each doubt compels me to learn more, I continue to fall into even greater love with my tradition, my community, and all the quirks and bits of glory that come with it.


p.s.: Happy 400th post!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

399. Girl Meets God, part 1

The teacher of my Me'ah class this semester is terrific. She's managed to break down the complex topic of medieval Jewish history into bite sizes neither too small and frothy nor massive and overwhelming. And she--unlike one of the good, but not great, instructors we had last year--is not the star of each lesson. I usually don't mind when a teacher injects herself into the subject matter, and enjoy hearing the personal perspectives which can bring a topic to life. But there's a line beyond which I become uncomfortable. I want to learn the thing, not the teacher's reactions to the thing. I want the teacher to be a little anonymous and distant so I can concentrate on something else besides the teacher.

My first reaction to Girl Meets God, a book I'm reading thanks to a deep and insightful review by The Velveteen Rabbi, was that its author had crossed this line. I kept getting distracted by the author's voice, kind of whiny and self-centered, despite the great story of a spiritual journey. I must admit that the subject matter, Orthodox Jewish woman converts to Christianity, also made me a little uncomfortable. I tried to wipe all biases from my mind as I began Chapter 1, but found myself casting judgments at every page: what's wrong with you, to do such a thing? I also remembered that I once contemplated--in secret, quietly, but the thought existed nevertheless--this same act, leaving a Judaism that seemed completely irrelevant. Maybe I bristled because parts of her story hit too close to home. But, really, I just wanted to shout at the author: why couldn't you find another kind of Judaism, like I did? Why did you leave us?


Thursday, November 02, 2006

398. Yom Kippur 5767, part 5

(Continued from part 4).

I don't remember much about the rest of Shaharit. Once we floated into the right key, I almost forgot anyone was there aside from all of us onstage, an odd sensation of intimacy and distance at the same time. (The stage was large and raised, the congregation ten feet below; I could barely feel their presence, especially when we turned around to face the Ark for the Amidah.) All I thought was: I have to pray really hard. I didn't know what I meant by that, but was sure I had to do it. Unlike last year, when I was overwhelmed by the emotions around me, this morning there was little extra room in my brain to contemplate my surroundings. I was in a race, running across the street to beat a light that was about to change, or trying to grab a bar that kept moving, like a trapeze. The prayers balanced precariously on an edge.

Shaharit ended, and I joined friends in the fourth row. Musaf began, and then the d'var Torah. It was fascinating, but I had used myself up; I promptly dozed off. I was startled awake every few seconds by parts of sentences, as if someone was pelting me with puzzle pieces. The rest of the time I cried, grateful to be able to hide under my tallit.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

397. Keep going

In the spirit, if not the letter, of NaBloPoMo (because I can provide quite enough pressure on my own, thank you), I hope to follow this November 1 post with another, and so on for the next 30 days. Or not. But at least I've started, the hardest part. This week's parasha is Lekh Lekha, which has become a kind of benchmark for me. Just when I think the High Holy Day soul-searching marathon has ended, Lekh Lekha reminds me of that Shabbat morning when, intoxicated by my new awareness of a benevolent universe, I listened to the rabbis talk about God's order to Abraham: Go. Go out of yourself, don't just sit there. I was astonished at their ability to get into my head and say what I needed to hear. I did go, blindly at times, and am in amazement of some of the places I've stumbled upon since that day.

This Lekh Lekha I need another reminder to keep going, not be afraid, not be lazy, and trust that the journey itself will provide answers--as long as I pay attention. Writes Rabbi David Hoffman of JTS (not yet posted to the website, but soon to be here):

...What happens when we are asked to put aside our personal histories and all the narratives from our past that, perhaps, keep us imprisoned? What happens when we are simultaneously asked to give up the scripts that we have written about our futures? “I thought I would be a partner at this point in my life. I thought my children would be….I thought I would be ready for retirement. I thought I would be married.” We all have scripts from our pasts and for our futures....

I submit that this is one of the challenges that Abraham’s life offers us. Can we put down our scripts for ourselves, our families, and children and be present, really present for our lives and the people we love?

Abraham’s life suggests that this is the key to our ability to most acutely see and appreciate all the great blessings God has given each one of us.

We did walking meditation at a class tonight, the mindful placing of one foot in front of the other with no defined destination. The goal was simply to keep moving. Yet when we stopped, we had certainly reached somewhere new. Ma norah ha makom hazeh, how awe-filled is this place; God was here but I knew it not, says Jacob--perhaps this new, unplanned place was the goal all along.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

396. Yom Kippur 5767, part 4

(Continued from part 3.)

The stage was set up a differently this year in order to appear less cavernous and more bimah-like. We stood at a wide, wooden table covered with fabric, rather than at a podium, and the Ark was just a few feet behind us. Last year it was situated right against the big back curtain, which looked grand and Charlton Hestonish from the last row but also felt a little scary. As did the stage lights this morning, bright enough to waken sinners at any depth; the rabbi interrupted the second prayer to plead for some dimness.

We could have been in the middle of a solar eclipse, for all I cared; I just wanted to find the pitch. I felt like I was squeezing into too-small shoes, possible with squirming but not much fun. But after a few minutes of discomfort, I decided to ignore the scolding voice teacher in my head; this day was too important to waste on my own annoyance. I trusted the musicians would follow me and attempt rescues when appropriate.

They did. They were amazing. We all managed to meet somewhere in the middle of the correct key, and everything was just fine. Something strange did happen during the Amidah, when the guitarist played a unfamiliar intro phrase and I had no idea what note to sing. I took a deep breath and picked one from the chord, the wrong one, but at least it was appropriately low for 9AM. The resulting intervals felt odd to my ears and muscles, but really did sound OK. And I kind of enjoyed the few seconds of adventure, which I imagined was how my niece felt when she went tandem skydiving last year and plunged through the air with an experienced jumper attached to her back. The unknown is much less scary when you're not alone. The piano came in nice and loud at the second paragraph, my shoes fit once again, and we kept on praying.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

395. Why I sing

Words by Abraham Joshua Heschel, posted in honor of the upcoming 100th anniversary of his birth:

"The only language that seems to be compatible with the wonder and mystery of being is the language of music. Music is more than just expressiveness. It is rather a reaching out toward a realm that lies beyond the reach of verbal propositions. Verbal expression is in danger of being taken literally and of serving as a substitute for insight. Words become slogans, slogans become idols. But music is a refutation of human finality. Music is an antidote to higher idolatry. While other forces in society combine to dull our mind, music endows us with moments in which the sense of the ineffable becomes alive."
(From an excerpt of Heschel's 1966 essay, "The Vocation of the Cantor.")

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

394. Yom Kippur 5767, part 3

(Continued from part 2.)

We began the service, and it sounded weird; the instruments were slightly out of tune, and the rabbi and I fumbled as they tried to adjust. They did, but by then we knew it would be a bad tuning day for all involved, kind of like a bad hair day but with a much briefer interval of pain. I just could not settle into a key. I'm sure few of the five people noticed, but the band could tell; they stopped playing entirely when we reached the Hatzi Kaddish, saving me from certain embarrassment. I sang a cappella and gratefully climbed up the scale once they came back in.

(To be continued.)

Monday, October 23, 2006

393. Unlike all others

I've added a link under "Torah," at right: a new blog of weekly divrei Torah (audio and written) brought to you by the world's most creative interpreters of such things. One of my first wide-eyed Shabbat mornings at my synagogue, years ago, coincided with theirs as well; I sat on the edge of my seat listening to strange words come to life, and wondered how much more I could hear if I knew how to crack the code. So I started to learn. (Simultaneous translations of Torah readings were the norm in ancient times, until modernity and elitism intervened--what, the common people should understand? No way.) I look forward to words of Torah on this site that will be quite unlike any others.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

392. Sanctuary

The holidays are really, truly over, and this is the first Sunday in a month that I haven't prayed, sang, ate, sang, prayed, rinse and repeat. Yesterday I chanted Torah (from Genesis, what a relief; a story instead of a tongue-twisting list of animals I never heard of), so I don't even have that to practice and distract me from reality. But as if to taunt me--just a little more, OK?--there's a street fair right outside my building, same one as happened a few blocks downtown last Sunday when I emerged from Simhat Torah services. I can't luxuriate in the flashback; I need to work today, because exhaustion and a stomach bug finally got the best of me and I'm way behind in everything except post-Yom Kippur promises, plans, and self-doubt.

This Shabbat, as I enjoyed plain, old, ordinary Friday evening services, I realized I had been in the Sanctuary once a day--sometimes twice--for eight in a row. Services last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; the first of this year's Me'ah classes (and a fascinating discussion about the history of Islam); a volunteer orientation meeting; a meditation class; chanting Torah at morning minyan. And then Shabbat again on Friday. (Saturday was still Shabbat, but at the church instead.) This is not usual; I do have a life apart from my synagogue. But that space makes me want to stay--the eccentric high ceiling, deep red carpet with little squares that look electric in the right light, white-on-white textures of Hebrew letters on the wall next to swirling Moorish circles, Ark dressed in jeweled ribbons of blue and gold. A grand room, softly lit, that feels small, full and safe even when empty. A wedding, a bris, a business meeting, a political rally, my first time chanting Torah, my first time leading services, tears, fear, laughter, anger, sighs, pain (when I showed up too soon after surgery), discovery, confusion, love: my world seems to be reflected on its walls, perhaps as practice for what happens outside them.

Monday, October 16, 2006

391. Cycle

I was talking with a friend yesterday, as we stood on the sidelines for a few minutes' break from dancing, about the the emotional highs and lows of the cycle of holidays. When I awoke this pitch-black Monday morning to face a new, ordinary week, I was struck by how closely this cycle mirrors human behavior. It begins with Tisha beAv, the remembrance of tragedy amidst the fattest time of the year, as crops in neverending daylight grow heavy with the fruits of our labor. Today those crops are mostly metaphorical, but I can imagine our ancestors lazing in succulent fields sure that all is well and always will be. And then Tisha beAv arrives to remind us of our folly.

But Judaism, like a compassionate parent, tempers rebuke with love. Seven weeks of consolation culminate in Rosh Hashanah and the promise of a new beginning--and the injunction to take resposibility and acknowledge the errors that led us to sadness in the first place. On Yom Kippur we share this burden and find ways to forgive ourselves and each other, and celebrate our new hope four days later at Sukkot. Now we are mature, and a little more realistic; we've learned that life is fragile, and spend the week under temporary shelters just in case we're tempted to forget. We gather one final time during Shemini Atzeret, when there's no further need for symbols and rituals--we've finally internalized the meaning of this cycle, and understand that the purpose of the day is simply to be with one another and, during Yizkor, with the memories of those we loved.

Finally it's Simhat Torah, when joy overflows in celebration of the words that taught us how to be human in the first place.

We get older, and the days grow shorter. Hanukkah arrives to remind us that there's always hope in the darkness, and Pesah and Purim a few months later to mark our new growth. And then we bask in the the summer sun once more--"Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked," Deut. 32:15--until Tisha beAv comes back, and we get another chance.

Judaism, human behavior, the cycle of nature--they are one and the same. I've read this interpretation many times, but didn't really get it until this year; maybe I was too caught up in myself to notice. Joy is tinged with sadness, grief lined with hope--there are no absolutes, and the cycle will always repeat and allow us infinite opportunities to heal and grow. Our end of the partership with God is to make that choice, or not. Freud had another take on this, but I prefer Kohelet, chapter 9, after he was done sighing about utter futility:

7. Go eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God. (JPS translation)

I agree: God wants us to choose happiness.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

390. The long way home

I love when Simhat Torah is on Saturday night and Sunday, because everyone's home from work and it seems like the whole world is having a party. And sometimes they really are. On my way back from last night's many hours of dancing, I passed a Latin American cultural center (housed on the top floor of a building where Thomas Edison first demonstrated moving pictures). A woman was taping a sign to the front door:

O'Brien Party Upstairs
Chag Sameach!

Only in New York.

This afternoon, after the dancing really ended, I stumbled out into the sunlight smack in the middle of a street fair, as happens every year when the holiday falls on an October weekend. Arepas, chimichangas, fried calamari, roasted corn, wholesale socks, heavy knit sweaters from Colombia, silk pillows in the shape of sushi, embroidered shoulder bags with little mirrors sewn on them, antique chests of drawers, beaded earrings, a blues singer on a portable stage in the side of a van, Thai chicken on a stick. A crazy mishmash of life was going on even though time had stopped for five hours inside the Sanctuary while we flew around and around in joyous circles, holding each other's hands and embracing Torah scrolls to our hearts. But I wasn't unnerved by the crowds--they were just like us, having enormous fun. No one yelled into cell phones or rushed to the subway; people meandered, instead, under the crisp blue sky, kids chasing each other underfoot, and I wove in between everyone and took the long way home. I recently learned that Hassidic rabbis declared my favorite line of this service--of all services--the most important, ever. I shivered when I heard it last night, but this morning it passed by quickly, with little fanfare. I was momentarily upset--wait, stop, I need to savor my awe!--but then realized that's how God generally works. Miracles happen quietly all around us; we blink and they're gone, but another is sure to follow. This year's marathon of holy days is over, but lots of glorious, ordinary daily life will take its place. I just have remember to pay attention.

Friday, October 13, 2006

389. Happy next chunk of holidays!

So I spent the past two evenings writing a little essay for my synagogue newsletter about morning minynan, and couldn't wait to post it here...and then noticed a footnote on the last page: "Material cannot be reprinted without permission." I'm all for bending rules, but it seemed too early in the year to commit such a blatant sin.

Instead, I'll note that the final stretch of holidays is about to begin: Hoshanah Rabbah this morning ("the great 'Save us'"), at which we beat our lulavs to a pulp against the floor and listen for the final *click* as those gates really close; Shabbat and Shemini Atzeret tomorrow ("the assembly of the eighth day," the conclusion of Sukkot), allowing us to catch our breath for a few hours; and then Simhat Torah tomorrow night and most of the day on Sunday, when I will dance until I drop and not really believe the holidays are over.

Moadim l'simha to all, a phrase that's awkward to translate: "Happy intermediate days of Sukkot!" And happy beginning and concluding days, too, of every season of every year to come.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

388. Yom Kippur 5767, part 2

(Continued from part 1.)

I spent the first part of Yom Kippur day at the theater, where I helped lead Shaharit. Maybe because it usually functions as a kind of temple of the most secular, fewer "regulars," those most likely to arrive early and leave late, chose it from among three possible High Holy Day service locations. So at 9AM the rabbi and I stepped on stage in front a congregation of five. (The other thousand would arrive by noon, when it would be standing room only.) But those five smiled at us and looked so ready, poised on the edges of their seats waiting to take off in prayer, that for a moment I hoped no one else would show. Then we could sing to each other all morning, volleying prayers back and forth like a slow game of tennis in this low-ceilinged, womblike space, and share a peaceful and cozy Yom Kippur. I was very tense. Much as I tried to believe this day was just a gentle reminder to re-evaluate, rather than an inevitable push over the cliff between past and future, I swore I could hear the scratch of a pen on big, heavenly Book of Life pages.

(To be continued.)

Monday, October 09, 2006

387. Joy

There's a sukkah in my back yard! Well, it's not quite a a back yard; I live in an apartment building. But we do have an alleyway where one of my neighbors got permission (after much wrangling with the co-op board about questions of church vs. state on public property--even though we have a Christmas tree and menorah in our lobby every December) to build a small sukkah, and I'm invited to eat there whenever I'd like. This has left me giddy with delight, way happier than I ever imagined a sukkah could make me feel--I think I'm appropriately drunk on holiday spirit. Sukkot is "z'man simhateinu," "season of our joy," and was once considered the most important and ecstatic day of the year; Rosh Hashanah existed primarily to mark the month in which Sukkot arrived. It ceded rank in recent times to the weightier Yom Kippur, its ancient and mystical ritual of waving a lulav and etrog during prayer usually relegated to a symbolic shake while taking a break from hanging cutouts of paper fruit from the roof of the sukkah. Even after six years of Hebrew School I had no idea what people actually did with the arba minim. My father, along with a lot of old men early in the morning before women climbed up to the balcony, must have waved appropriately at shul, but never clued me in.

I went to services yesterday morning, shook in the directions of heaven, earth, and the four corners of the universe (paying careful attention, as the rabbi suggested, to the "earth" shake, a direction where we had the best chance of jarring something loose), and then ran home to eat a quick sandwich in the sukkah--my sukkah!--before heading out to my niece's birthday party/fundraising event. The sukkah, suitably flimsy and with bamboo mats as s'chach, sits within a canyon of red brick and humming air conditioners. A man I didn't recognize was already inside at a tiny table waiting for his daughter, a neighbor I'd seen occasionally in the elevator. We Jews no longer "look Jewish" and I try not to make assumations, but this woman had bright red hair, green eyes, and a petite nose; I figured she davened at St. Ignatius of Loyola. I was wrong; she is, in fact, a professor of Yiddish. I made kiddush and we all shared the grape juice in our sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace in a city and world which most of the time is not.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

386. Yom Kippur 5767, part 1

Yom Kippur was just a week ago, but feels like ages. The day was 25 hours of stopped time, a long sigh interrupted by tears, laughter, and shuddering; reality on Tuesday was flat and thick in comparison. Time, by the end of the week, resumed a normal rhythm, but the previous Monday seemed like a beautiful desert island from which I had been rescued, sad to leave even though I was all alone in the raw air.

Although I'm moved by the Kol Nidre melody, it never burns into my soul as much as I hope. But I'm always electrified on the eve of Yom Kippur as we wait for the moment of emancipation, that instant when vows are annulled and last year's mistakes erased from the big blackboard of heaven. The sanctuary is packed, chairs arranged to fill every possible inch right up to the edge of the bimah, and everyone dresses for the formal version of their lives--suits, skirts, white from head to toe. A friend said she loves this evening at our synagogue because it reminds of her a shtibl, the entire neighborhood shoulder to shoulder and struggling as one to push their prayers in the right direction.

When I was in the (late, lamented) synagogue choir, we cared much less about Kol Nidre than Ya'aleh, our grand solo. A long prayer sung to a slow, grave tune, Ya'aleh beseeches God to hear our supplications from the beginning of the day to its end, dusk to dusk. The second line of each verse tracks the middle step of this spiritual journey:

...may our pardon come to greet us with the dawn...
...may our glad glimpse of forgiveness come at dawn..
...may our anguish at our imperfection meet the dawn...

I never paid much attention to these words when I was in the choir. For two years I had a one-line solo, a scary thirty seconds of singing into a microphone from a balcony, Evita-like, right above the 2,500 people who filled the massive Christian Science church. So I was in a sweat before Ya'aleh praying I wouldn't swallow my tongue before the line, and dizzy with relief right afterwards. Its meaning was the least of my concerns.

This year I listened very carefully to every prayer because, even more than atonement, I wanted answers--to questions not yet formed but which I hoped God would know. Maybe what I sought was somewhere in those words. But I was doubtful about this theory until the rabbi reminded us that Yom Kippur was a day of hope rather than despair; the slate is clean, the possibilities endless. At that moment I also noticed that Ya'aleh, quite literally, was about me. At 6AM, in just a few hours, I would crawl out of bed and start warming up to sing Shaharit, the morning service. In the past I relied on vocal exercises and scales to get ready, but never found an effective combination; I always sounded a little ragged during the first few prayers. So this year, in my robe, in the dark, trying not to wake the neighbors, I simply began at the beginning of the service, and by the end my voice was limber and fluid. Were those the moments, as Ya'aleh suggests, when my sound was hoarse and tired, my defenses down, when my prayer meant the most to God? Or maybe at dawn I helped God warm up as well, so that by dusk we were both ready to forgive each other.