Thursday, March 30, 2006

299. Revelation, part 1

I just finishing taking a short class at my synagogue on the topic of "revelation," both personal and for the Jewish people as a whole. Each Wednesday evening I came home and sat down to write about it, but was as stuck for words as when I tried to clarify my own experience. (This post took me about a week.) The rabbi asked us, at the start of each hour and a half, to make it personal, to absorb the intellectual part of what we learned and then allow it to sink into our spirits. I did, and as we leapt through philosophy, midrash and Torah about turning points and meetings with divinity I sat there with racing heart and disappearing breath, just as when I walk up to the bimah to chant. I was comforted that others have had similar experiences, but wondered where human imagination ends and God begins at the moment of encounter.

I certainly question my sanity far less frequently in this regard than eight years ago, but still feel like a drama queen. Maybe it's a cultural bias; Jews, at least the ones I know, usually believe that burning-bush type events are the realm of gospel preachers. We're a little embarrassed to talk about personal relationships with God, a phrase we only hear in Christian contexts. But every minute and word of each text we studied during this class were familiar, a travelogue through ten minutes of my life when I stood praying the Amidah at a makeshift synagogue at a camp in Connecticut. In the one moment that became the seed and spark for my subsequent involvement with Judaism, I understood that God was with me then and always. I've certainly had doubts, being human, but like those times as a kid when you told your parents you hate them, deep down I know what's true.

(To be continued.)

Monday, March 27, 2006

298. In and out

This past Shabbat morning F., the gabbai, helped lead services in honor of the anniversary of his Bar Mitzvah a couple of decades ago. ("He didn't finish what he wanted to say back then, so we're giving him another chance," joked the rabbi.) I suspect F. looked pretty much the same at 13 as he does now, with an equally silly and sharp sense of humor. He explained that even though part of this week'sTorah portion talks about the rituals of Passover, he would wait until the actual holiday to wear his matzah tie. He also offered an appropriately gabbai-centric d'var Torah. Last Simchat Torah, F. recalled, the mayor of New York himself made an appearance at services while we were all dancing ourselves silly. (Holiday visits to synagogues by candidates for higher office are the Upper West Side version of kissing babies.) A member of Bloomberg's retinue, judging F. to be a man of some importance, cornered him and announced that Bloomberg would be entering through one door and exiting via another. "OK," said the unimpressed F., and went about his business while the functionary no doubt wondered why a rose-strewn path wasn't being cleared. (I almost danced smack into Bloomberg while he stood at that very door. He looked unseasonably tan and wore an expensive suit and spray-painted smile. But it was cool to see him nevertheless.)

In this week's haftarah for Shabbat Ha-Hodesh, continued F., we're given the following instructions in Ezekiel 46:8 as part of the ritual for a rebuilt Temple: "When the prince enters, he shall come in by the vestibule of the gate, and he shall go out the same way." Some things, F. concluded, never change.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

297. Joy

I helped lead services again on Friday night, next to the rabbi whose energy, equal parts strength and enveloping kindness, almost knocks me over. The more I do this--leading, chanting, learning--the more I feel the forces of individual and collective souls as they gently try to break past my own walls. I become speechless, especially after weeks as stressful as the past few, unable to find words to do justice to whatever presence surrounds me. I get frustrated at my inability to articulate the moment. Does it really exist if I can't describe it? And I believe I must; I owe that honesty to the community who made this experience possible in the first place.

It never seems possible to give as much as I'm receiving. Susannah Heschel, who sometimes visits my synagogue when she's in town, spoke at services about her father's belief that God's presence lives within the goodness we show each other. At the back of the sanctuary I noticed the man whose wife had died a few weeks ago. He looked frozen, empty. I wondered if my singing was giving him some comfort, or if I was having so much fun that I was keeping all the goodness for myself and not leaving enough extra to reach the last row.

I know I shouldn't be surprised by happiness. But I tend to keep little checklists in my mind of when joy is appropriate--in the presence of love; for family simchas, marriages, births, etc.; at times of triumph; for simple miracles, like looking at a flower. Personal joy from leading services, which seems very-self centered, is not on this list, although overlaps with some of those self-defined categories. A little is OK, but I don't quite know where to fit the great amounts that leave me wanting to run a marathon and leap over a mountain at the same time. I hope it keeps arriving, and continues to spread to the rest of my life. As those of us who daven from Siddur Sim Shalom pray at the end of the Amidah: "Let me hear joy and jubilation... Show me the path of life, the full joy of Your presence." Joy is a manifestation of God, and I need to not be afraid of its light.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

296. Play


On Purim I think finally understood that play, which comes so easily when we're young and seems to become more and more difficult as we get older, is like this midrash: Before we were born, we knew all the wisdom of Torah. But once we emerged into the world, God put a finger to our lips and instructed us to forget and keep it forever secret. (That's why we have a little indentation above our lips.) I think that children still remember bits of this amazing knowledge, which is why they're able to focus so fervently on joy in ways adults cannot. A friend of mine, in a beautiful d'var Torah on Parashat Terumah, noted that atop the tabernacle sat figures of two cherubs. And God's presence within the Holy of Holies was in just one place: that spot where each child's gaze met the other's. We're closest to God when we can remember what it was like to be a child, when we let others take us by the hand and we felt safe enough to focus all our energies on the wonder of the path ahead.

I cannot, when I chant, think about anything else but chanting. Sometimes I wish I could--I want to be calm, in control, not afraid that my breath will be whisked out of my chest. But I always end up surrendering to awe and stage fright, as if a strong wind could blow me over if I lost focus or let go of the anchoring yad for even a second. I leap into the first word with no choice but to trust my memory or, if that doesn't work, the rabbis standing on each side and the people all around, an embrace of ears and eyes who read along and want me to get it right. When, mid-leap, I do remember that I'm safe enough to take a chance and let my heart be open and naked, chanting really does become like play--so joyful I think I can still hear God whispering a secret or two.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

295. Unencumbered


When I was a teenager, West 14th St. was at the edge of an outlaw zone my boyfriend and I would skirt gingerly after playing pinball at an arcade in the Village. It was a dirty, sleazy street where you could bump into drug dealers or people who, without irony, might after dark wear one of the rainbow-colored Afro wigs that were sold at storefronts up and down the block. The neighborhood is a lot cleaner these days, although you can still find suspiciously discounted gold watches among the Starbucks and luxury condos. Twice a week I cross 14th and 6th on my way to the cheapest gym in the city, where steroided bodybuilders and skinny grandmothers alike pump iron 24 hours a day. I run past the newsstand and look downtown at the Jefferson Market Library clock to see how late I am, and remember that same view 25 years ago as I raced to the subway with my boyfriend in order to get back to Queens before dinner. But there used to be two tall swaths of silver behind the clock tower; now it's just empty sky. I get angry at the blank air that leaches the sweetness from my nostalgia. I want to be able to remember the past without intrusion of the present.

While standing in front of the congregation on Purim with a life-sized chicken as my gabbai, I thought about a time when I was young and ignorant enough about who or what had left, was missing, or might never return, to be able to focus on nothing but play. I had a clearer view, back then, of emotions--love, fear, wonder--as they floated, unencumbered, to the surface. When I chant, especially on Purim, I think I reclaim some of those moments, and for a little while can feel as free and open as a child.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

294. Piñata whacking


After we sang the evening prayers to reggae tunes and the Macarena, we watched "Dick," aka a rabbi with a "gun," run around the sanctuary with his "hunting buddy," the other rabbi, in pursuit of a big yellow chicken. (Yes, the third rabbi.) But, oops! He shot his friend by mistake. Sorry. The cantor, dressed as a frighteningly convincing Secret Service agent, strolled around the sanctuary with an earpiece and big yellow rubber hammer and threatened to bop non-complaints on the head. In between karaoke, piñata whacking, and invasion by a marauding band of cross-dressers flinging condoms stamped with hechschers (Kosher certification) to the crowd, we read the Megillah. But amidst the weirdness, in ways I can't really explain, ran a clear strand of purpose and kavannah, spiritual intention. This was a religious service. We might be laughing and cursing, but the parchment scroll of Esther was handled with reverence. "Methinks thou dost protest too much;" the rabbis' attempts to be sacrilegious were so extreme that they confirmed the opposite, and also showed how easy it is for anyone, even the most good among us, to forget how to be good.

(To be continued.)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

293. Superfluous

I feel like I've emerged from a cave in some strange universe where all people do is chant, work, think about God, and eat tuna fish sandwiches (my staple when too busy for anything else).

Ancient sages wrote that when the Messiah comes, all holidays will become superfluous--except for Purim, a day when we're commanded to get so drunk and turned around that we can't tell good from evil. ("Turn it around, turn it around," says the Talmud, meaning that we need to read the Torah from all possible angles, and even backwards.) It's a strange idea for a religion, especially one so focused on ethical action. Maybe it means that since we can't understand goodness if we forget its opposite, Purim will persist as our reminder. Or perhaps that in a perfect world without evil, and no need to discern it from good, Purim will become a proof text--we'll try to be bad, but it just won't work. There are many more interpretations, all of which I need to think about for a few more years before I can begin to understand. I do know that Purim is taken very seriously by the rabbis at my synagogue. And we, the congregation, even while becoming part of the bizarre proceedings, are still a little too self-conscious to reach an equally high level of abandon. We know how to dance like crazy on Shabbat, no problem, but are much less successful at spiritually-condoned blasphemy.

I agree that it's good and necessary. We cry on Yom Kippur; on the day of its mirror image an opposite action, in a balanced life, seems to make sense.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

292. Happy belated Purim!

I had no idea this strange and wonderful holiday would take up so much time and energy... which is a very good thing, but I'm exhausted. This picture of my costume will have to suffice in lieu of (the substantially less than) 1,000 words to come. For those who do not usually ride New York City Transit or read Hebrew: it's a MetroCard, the thing we use to get from place to place, except it says "ShushanCard," the name of the city of the Purim story. Yes, it's very silly. I topped it off with a bright yellow wig and tights, which nicely complemented the color of the chicken suit worn by the rabbi who stood next to me and made sure I made no mistakes while reading the Megillah.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

291. Busy Chanting

I will be back posting in a day or two... my brain, at the moment, has no free space aside from 30 verses of Esther, chapters 4 and 6, as well as the nine verses of Exodus I read on Purim morning last year and will be doing again on Tuesday. And which I seem to have forgotten. I've learned everything, but it's still a bit slippery; the tunes appear when I'm sure I won't remember them, and when I think I'm confident, a word I've sung three hundred times suddenly looks completely unfamiliar. It will all sort out in the next few days, and then be over in less than ten minutes.

Meanwhile, I need to make a costume...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

290. Consolation

Yesterday was Zayin Adar, the 7th of Adar, traditional date of Moses' birth and death. In its honor, the Hevra Kadisha at my synagogue (those, including myself, who volunteer around issues of death and mourning), and at synagogues all over the world, held a dinner--the one occasion of the year when members can be publicly thanked, since this is a mitzvah whose recipients are no longer able to express gratitude.

I go to occasional shiva minyanim, services held in homes during the week following the funeral of a family member. I know I'm not strong enough to volunteer in any other way, and am glad I can muster the guts to do even this. I'm always privileged to hear stories about amazing people, and wonder how many other singular lives I'll discover only after it's too late.

It sounds a little strange to say a Zayin Adar dinner was really cool, but our speaker was Rabbi Maurice Lamm, author of two extraordinary books, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning and Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief. He shared brilliant insights while also making us laugh, an especially impressive skill around this topic. He wondered aloud: why... we cover mirrors in a house of mourning? To remind us that we can become invisible at any time, and teach us to confront these fears. we say Mourner's Kaddish every day for eleven months, a prayer hardly anyone understands? To experience the rhythm and music of its repetitive, hypnotic words, which become a mantra of comfort. we sit shiva (the seven days after a funeral of receiving guests in one's home, preferably while sitting on a low stool)? Why sit? Shouldn't we be doing something more active to recover from our pain? No. We need to remain still and take time to hear and tell stories about our loved one, a necessary focus along the path of grief.

I listened to his wise words and remembered that I barely did any of these things after the deaths of my parents; Jewish ritual, Jewish anything, was way at the bottom of my list back then. I think I'm making up for it, very slowly. My mother died twenty-one years ago today (Monday will be the Hebrew date). She's always with me, so I don't really feel like I have to set aside separate time to think of her. But I did anyway, and I smiled, and in a few days will laugh in her memory along with hundreds of other people at services on Purim, every single one of them celebrating her life.

Monday, March 06, 2006

289. Letter

Yesterday a sofer, a Torah scribe, visited my synagogue and wrote--with all our help--part of the new scroll that will be ours in May. I got to stand behind him and hold his arm as he filled in the outlines of a kof, the first letter of the word kodkod, "head," from Deut. 33:20 in V'zot HaBerachah, the last parasha of the Torah.

It took just a few seconds. I watched the ink shine and then flow down a small river insider the top curve of the letter, which looked like part of a link connecting me to the rest of the Jewish people, and then all over again within the long bottom bar that falls below the line. Thank goodness it's not a little tiny yud, I thought--I get to feel the quill gliding across the parchment twice! So now I'm part of those words. Every Simchat Torah, the rabbi reads that section and all present receive an aliyah--so I will surely visit that very same letter once a year as I stand over his shoulder and peer at the scroll. And long after the rabbi and I and everyone else move on to somewhere else in the universe, if the world and its holy objects are allowed to survive, many more generations will also see that letter. How will they interpret it? How will it sound when they chant? Maybe much like we do but also different, enriched by the beauty and complexity of their own lives. In those few seconds I planted a little of myself in the future.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

288. Silence, part 2


Right before we officially ushered in Shabbat with Lekha Dodi, we were asked to close our eyes and imagine a place of utter beauty. I thought of the Lake District, lights shining on a mirror of water within a blanket of silence sweet and smooth as the skin of my newborn cousin. The lake was like Shabbat, a moment of completion and balance that seemed too good to be part of the rest of the universe.

But as my eyes were closed, I realized that I could probably never find that place again, the actual physical location of the lake. We had been hiking, just meandering from town to town. For a moment, sitting at services, I became very sad; I wanted to breathe the clear air above the hills, feel its dirt beneath my toes, and could not. I began to doubt if it ever existed at all. I yearned for music to make me feel better, to distract me.

So I thought about services the next morning, when I would get to sing again. I remembered that music wouldn't exist without the silences that push it along, just as the words and letters in a Torah scroll rely upon the spaces between then to create meaning. Like an instant between the closing and opening of one's eyes, the silence at that moment was like my memory of the lake, poised on the edge of beauty and infinite promise. I might not be able to stand in on its actual shore, but the quiet around me that evening was a warm, compassionate melody, as real and strong as earth.

Friday, March 03, 2006

287. Silence, part 1

Sometimes it's nice and joyful to be silent. Tonight I went to a contemplative Shabbat service, led by two rabbis at my synagogue who also teach meditation. Until last year I was wary of the concept; it seemed to cross over that invisible line between acceptably New Agey and uncomfortably flaky. But I tried meditation before my surgery and found it comforting and neither weird nor--like a fake, watered-down Buddhism--syncretistic. Elements of the practice, at least to my limited knowledge, are very compatible with Jewish prayer and its focus on reaching a state of wholeness and integration in life as a way to express the words of the Shema, "God is one." And Jewish worship, like meditation, also centers around silent prayer and repetitive chanting.

Friday night services begin with a series of Psalms, and tonight the rabbis had us sing and then think about one line in each that described an ideal way of being:

Psalm 95. "Harden not your heart."
Psalm 97. "Light is stored for the righteous." What does it mean to "store light"? There is a part of us built just for this, a place for goodness to remain and be accessible if only we remember to draw upon it.
Psalm 98. "Sing a new song"--and leave behind last week's songs of stress, guilt, anger. God, the rabbi pointed out, can handle anything, including these old, annoying tunes, so might as well just hand them over.
Psalm 99. "Our Sovereign loves lawful order, maintaining justice." Justice not only for others, but fairness and kindness towards ourselves, as well.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

286. Esther

Purim, incredibly, is in less than two weeks. (I haven't recovered from Yom Kippur.) Last week I emailed the cantor to find out if I could once again chant chapter 6 of Megillat Esther, which I learned last year. Sure, he said--and do you want to do more? Well, why not. Esther trop, for some reason, seems easier than all the others, a mix of major and minor keys that's close to the cadences of speaking. Reading Esther feels like singing part of a comic opera, Broadway as channeled by the ancient rabbis (or at least their assistants who handled the musical part).

So tonight I started learning chapter 4, 17 verses. Three of them, sad ones about the weeping and wailing Jews in Shushan, are sung in a different trop--the melody of Eicha, Lamentations, which is read on Tisha b'Av, and which I do not yet know. Fortunately I have a CD of my Torah chanting teacher reading all of Esther (which I believe she learned when she was about 12), and so was able to match her phrases to the symbols for those three verses and understand what I was doing. In about a week I'll know it by heart; right now it's quite confusing.

I'm learning all the different kinds of trop, slowly but surely: so far, Torah, Haftarah, Esther, and the beginnings of Eicha. Still to go: the one that's used on three holidays, when we chant Kohelet (Ecclesiates, on Sukkot), Ruth (Shavuot), and Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs, Passover), as well as the High Holy Day Torah trop. Yes, there are an awful lot of melodies, inconveniently all set to the exact same notation. I figure I have about half a lifetime left to master everything, which should be long enough.