Friday, June 30, 2006

341. Workshop

I'll be at an a cappella singing workshop this weekend. I used to be a groupie of this sort of thing, although considered myself a fervent rather than obsessed participant. I learned almost all I know about singing at these events, including the fact that losing your place and stopping dead in the middle of a song isn't really fatal. I haven't attended in a few years, though, which will make the experience all the more interesting. I'm a very different musician these days; I used to hate singing solos, and could never imagine why anyone would want to hear me. I loved being one small component weaving in and out of a larger sound, which is why choirs and a cappella groups made me so happy. They still do--but I'm no longer afraid to stand out.

I used to read music all the time, as well--every week, every day, for fun, in the shower, etc. But I haven't looked at a Western-style score now in over a year. I feel like I was plucked out of my native country only to find that I liked the new land's foreign language better than my own. A couple of years ago I could sight-sing a complicated piece without a hitch; I hope this skill hasn't left me entirely.

And if it has... oh well. There has to be some room in my brain for new skills to grow.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

340. The ocean

It's been a while since I was a loss for words about what it feels like to help lead services. The best description I can summon of my seventeenth time last Friday, aside from "fun," is "trust"--rarely have I felt so much coming straight at me, undiluted, from so many people. I used to go swimming in the ocean when I was a teenager. I'd venture out just a little further than my strength warranted, well beyond where my feet could touch sand and yet not at the line where waves broke hard and disappeared. I'd find a zone neither dangerous nor entirely safe, close to my friends swimming nearby and far as possible from the old folks on towels. I'd close my eyes and let the gentle, insistent current take me wherever it wished. Everyone once in awhile I'd judge my distance to the shore, and paddle back if I drifted too far. But I never returned to shallow water. I found comfort and safety in the rocking of the waves and their promise, still checked and measured at tide's edge, of unknown depth. I was wrapped in the ocean, afloat by grace of her power.

I almost lost myself while leading services last Friday, drifting further and further out into a perfect sea. The Torah is water, always changing, flowing, growing, and so is the music and prayer that leaves the bima. It sticks to people in the congregation like rain and then, like rapids, different and fuller, makes it way back up front. I'm sometimes afraid it will knock me under while I'm buoyant with trust and love. But it never does.

Monday, June 26, 2006

339. Now

I've had one of Those Weeks; it was last week, I blinked, and now it's this week. But now is definitely now, and it comes with many more chances to write.

I did sit down last weekend to talk about leading services on Friday night, but all words seemed superfluous. I had fun! Lots of fun! The rest, as they say, is commentary.

After I ascertain, later today, that this is not another one of Those Weeks, I will expand beyond what can be said while standing on one foot.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

338. Cloud

I think I've expunged the memory of last week's Torah chanting. Begone, nerves. This morning I read four verses, my voice shaking a little but otherwise without incident. I tried to imagine the cloud of God I sang about hovering over me at that very moment, making sure my eyes followed the yad. And they did.

As I stepped up to the bima, the rabbi whispered, "Do you like the print in this Torah?" Not a question I expected at that particular moment, but I was happy to answer. "I'm not used to it yet, " I whispered back. After a dozen more aliyot, maybe I'll make peace with its fuzzy little tagin that look like spiders, the unexpectedly pointy serifs on edges of letters that have flat tops, and the shiny new yad that's too fat for my fingers. Clearly I need to suppress the graphic designer part of myself during this endeavor, and just sing from within the benevolent cloud.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

337. Wings of birds

(Continuing this story...)

I felt like I was caught in magnetic field of drums all pushing and pulling the beat in search of equilibrium. I waited for the rabbi to jump in with a verse, but his focus was on the tapestry of rhythm he was trying to weave with the drummer to my left. So I kept singing, and suddenly it seemed I wasn't following the musicians, but they me. It was like that moment when you're on a two-wheeler for the first time, and your father lets go of the back wheel and you keep flying down the sidewalk faster and faster, sure you're going to crash. I panicked, imagining a runaway train without brakes. This was the rabbi's job, not mine, to sense when the energy of the congregation began to shift and then slow the tempo accordingly. But we were nowhere near that point. I could see, out of the corner of my eye, hands on either side beating on drumskins, fast as the wings of birds.

For an instant I didn't know where I was. Who are all these people? I looked up from the siddur--why are they smiling? Oh--they're listening. We're creating this together. I kept singing, wondering when we'd return to earth.

At that moment the rabbi joined in, just a little quieter than I, and then slower. I never really had any doubt that he'd catch us. Like a pilot coming in for a landing, he sang slower and softer until we were back to a calm place.

I'll be helping lead services once again this Friday, and that's probably it until next year--over the summer there are almost too many rabbis to go around. I don't know yet if I'll be needed for the High Holy Days this fall. I hope so.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

336. Shavuot morning, 5766, part 3

(Continued, and backtracking a little to finish this story.)

A friend and I were talking, awhile back, about how chanting Torah is like getting a pitch from a tuning fork. The note is waiting in the air and always will be, but you can hear it only when you hit the fork and create a vibration. Words of Torah also never end; the scroll rolls on and on, its lessons infinite. Chanting is like plucking one message from the millions that hum patiently in the background.

I began to read, tentative and hoarse at first, shaking from exhaustion and anticipation, and then with more confidence as I grew familiar with this new handwriting. I felt like I was meeting an old friend for the first time. "Al tira'u," I chanted--do not be afraid--and how could I be, standing here with my friends and a document that represented the best of strength and beginnings.

On Shavuot we read five aliyot, sections of the Torah, plus one extra (maftir) pertaining specifically to the holiday. (The more aliyot, the more important the day; Shabbat, a taste of eternity, gets seven, even more than Yom Kippur.) So as not to keep the congregation waiting between readings while you roll to the proper section, it's customary to use two or even three different scrolls when aliyot aren't from consecutive passages. So after I read the fifth and final aliyah, the new scroll was moved off the bima and another, an old one rolled to my maftir portion, put in its place.

The contrast was astonishing, the letters so faded and smudged I could barely read them. I looked for the yad; it had been taken away by mistake along with the other scroll. So the rabbi handed me the rose, instead, the one whose stem had pointed his way during the Ten Commandments. Old and new words alike would get the chance to meet something sweet and beautiful. I noticed patches of darker ink, corrections made to broken letters--this scroll had witnessed many stories and tears, and the other, the new one, was just like a baby, still waiting for life to happen. How lucky I was to sing, in the space of a few minutes, words from both ends of the cycle.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

335. Mirror and magnet


I apologized to one of the rabbis as I left the bima; she laughed and said, it's OK! I went up to the other rabbi after services, the one who got me back on track. He looked me in the eye in a way that left not one millimeter of room for doubt, and said: do not worry at all. It's happened to me; it's OK. I was afraid I had caused a moment of extreme discomfort for everyone listening, but my friends assured me this wasn't the case. I considered the morning's d'var Torah, which spoke of making mistakes and how lucky we are to have a safe environment in which to do so. I felt better. (Until one well-meaning congregant took me aside and said, "That didn't seem like you up there." Thank you very much.)

I think my nerves have become a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than an honest response to the circumstances. I'm caught in a loop, afraid of making a mistake and then working myself into such an irrational state of anticipation that I become verklempt the minute I step up to the bima. I have this problem only when reading Torah; haftarah and Megillat Esther (which is far longer, and also read on Purim from a scroll devoid of notes and vowels) worry me hardly at all. I am fully present and filled with joy whenever I lead services.

This morning the letters on the scroll seemed too crisp, angular, even harsh. The graphic designer in me was bothered by their wide squarishness compared to the tight little characters of the old scroll, and their extreme contrast to the whiteness of the parchment. I missed the old tan background, and letters that looked like footprints in sand. These ones seemed like stamping feet, insisting I go forward even when I lost my direction. I wanted them to take my hand, instead, and lead me like when I chanted in Jerusalem in the shadow of the Wall. I should have relaxed and trusted the scroll, but felt like I didn't know it well enough yet.

I realized afterwards that the scroll was just being a mirror, which is its purpose. On Shavuot we're asked to find ourselves in the new Torah and that, in my most naked state at the bima, is exactly what I saw. Usually I'm certain my nerves are just stage fright, but sometimes the mystical answers I still resist seem to gain credence. The Torah is a magnet, pulling onto its parchment surface all the messy detritus of life, which for me this week was full of stress, promises broken, bonds weakened, and some good stuff, too. The word I stumbled on, whose letters looked unfamiliar until the rabbi underlined them for me, was kadosh, holiness. Maybe, suggested a friend, there was a reason God made me stop at this particular point. I wish I knew. Today, a day later, I feel like the experience shocked me awake, and that I'm finally ready for the new scroll promised by Shavuot and my name.


As of this morning, onchanting has been visited exactly 4,000 times over the past year, a large and possibly auspicious number (100 times 40, the number of years we wandered in the desert; 40 is also the age after which you're traditionally allowed to study Kaballah), or maybe it means nothing at all. Still, a lot of visits. Thank you for reading, whoever you are, and also to those who found me by typing "chanting" in Google, as well as the 11(!) who hung around after searching for "Sun Breeze oil." I'm also grateful to others who got here via searches for "zen tin-foil hat," "zinc and nyquil," "swollen vocal cords clergy" (I hope you're feeling better), and "to get money by chanting only" (I hope you did). Not to mention "high end prefab shower stall wall," "goldfish," and "god, am I really a bad person?" (no!). Thank you all.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

334. Dragged across Sinai

I have a Shavuot name, which I realized only recently. My middle name is Ruth; her story, of the devotion of a daughter-in-law and love of a kind man that led to the line of David and one day (so they say), the Messiah, is read on this holiday. And my last name is a key word in the tale, as well. I was always told that Ruth was my father's grandmother, but now I wonder if he--learned in Torah, although we never, ever discussed the topic--was trying to connect my life in some way to Shavuot.

I considered the question last Thursday and Friday, but reached no conclusions. For me, the Torah-receiving theme of Shavuot, originally a harvest celebration, always seemed grafted on in order to align it more closely with other Jewish holidays of beginnings. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, Yom Kippur the acquisition of a clean slate. Pesah commemorates new-found freedom and growth, and Hanukkah is a light at the darkest part of the year. Even trees get a fresh start (Tu Bishevat). It's nice to imagine that the Torah really was given on Shavuot, but it's not like Moses marked the date in his Palm Pilot when he came down from the mountain.

So even as I take Shavuot seriously, the learning, the services at dawn, I've had trouble connecting its meaning, and the meaning of my own name, with the events they're supposed to celebrate. Today, however, I think I figured it out.

I read Torah again this morning, a short section about the rituals of the Nazirites. I've chanted a lot lately, almost every weekend or holiday for the past month. I still get nervous, am glad when I don't have too many lines, and grow more and more annoyed with myself for feeling this way. Most of the reading has been at the cantor's invitation, when he was short of other volunteers. He always seems to ask me when I need to do it most.

Although they were tricky, with a few trops and patterns in unexpected combinations, after a week of study I knew the verses backwards and forwards. I noticed that the words "to place" and "to present" were always sung with notes soaring upwards, which I tried to use as anchors for memorizing the rest of tune. I generally weave understanding into the back of my mind as I sing, but this time could remember the trop only when focusing on these signposts and what that priest was actually doing with his matzah and wine.

Still, I wasn't worried. I walked up to the bima and the new scroll that my synagogue welcomed a few weeks ago. I located my words in a sea of night-black ink and began to sing. My concentration flagged after a line or two; maybe I forgot to think about the priest's wine and instead waited for the tune to flow effortlessly, as it usually did. I stumbled. The rabbi corrected me, and I continued. But only for a moment, until I reached a word I had practiced a thousand times, whose melody and meaning were like my own breath, and suddenly I didn't know what to do. The rabbi sang quietly, and I stared in confusion at letters whose strokes seemed to have blown apart. I searched for a kof but saw only a crowd of vavs, all stacked against each other like sheaves of wheat. Is this a mistake in the scroll? I wondered in a panic. The letters shuddered slightly like Jell-O trying to escape from under a film of Saran Wrap. And I felt equally trapped, couldn't go forward, couldn't make a sound.

The rabbi leaned over and moved my yad onto the word, the same word I had been looking at all along, and I was able to resume the journey. I tried to keep my voice strong and steady. I felt as if I had been dragged, like a balky dog on a leash, all the way across Sinai.

(To be continued.)

Monday, June 05, 2006

333. Pentecost

(Interrupting the story.)

Yesterday I attended a remarkable service at the church where my synagogue meets, in celebration of our fifteen years of partnership. It was the holiday of Pentecost, and our rabbi and their pastor spoke about its many similarities with Shavuot. Pentecost comes fifty days after Easter; Shavuot, originally a harvest holiday, falls on the fiftieth day after Passover. But the parallels run much deeper. Together we read Acts 2 and Exodus 19, both stories of fire and brimstone that reveal the spirit of a God Who, in each case, demands more from us than faith alone. In the Christian tradition, explained the pastor, the Holy Spirit is revealed only when Jesus' disciples are together. United, they're charged with doing good works and spreading the Word of God. The revelation at Sinai, too, happened only when we joined forces at that mountain, not just Israelites but people of every religion who ever lived or will live, according to midrash. (This interpretation terrified me as a child; I envisioned my tiny soul straining for a glimpse of the Tablets, crushed under a big rock with a million other souls.) In the Jewish tradition we're also instructed to use God's gift to help us lead holy lives--the gift, in our case, of the Torah we receive on Shavuot.

In Acts, the Spirit of God speaks through a myriad of tongues. And so does God at Sinai, where each person heard the Word according to his or her own understanding in one of the seventy languages of mankind, wrote the ancient rabbis. Both texts, pointed out the associate pastor, describe a reverse Babel--a million tongues making complete sense to their listeners! That's why this church and my synagogue love each other so much; we speak different languages, and are committed and proud to do so, but can understand the bigger one we both share. We sing our own notes but come together in harmony. I wanted to run out of that church and scream at everyone in New York and the world: What's wrong with you? See, it's possible! Just listen to each other, and life will be so much better, so filled with peace.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

332. Shavuot morning, 5766, part 2

The sanctuary felt full to me, even though there were only about thirty of us. My brain was as logy as when I had jet lag after arriving in Israel, and I was having trouble breathing in the hot, rainy air. But I could see the breastplate of our new Sefer Torah shining from behind the translucent parokhet, the Ark curtain, and anticipation poked me awake better than a shot of black coffee and cheesecake combined.

We happened to have an overabundance of rabbis (if such a thing is possible) in attendance that morning--three from my synagogue, three more visiting--who took turns, like a rotating heavenly host, leading parts of Shaharit. The bima, a small, wooden table draped with velvet cloth and adorned with a few of the roses from our study area downstairs, was pulled to the center of our ring of seats as we began the Torah service. At the fourth aliyah, the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments, we gathered as closely as we could and peered over each other's shoulders to watch the rabbi proclaim each word, the stem of a red rose leading his way instead of the yad.

Then it was my turn. I picked up the new yad, an elongated crystal of silver, and found my lines. The parchment was so white and smooth that I swore the ink was still wet and reflecting light. I imagined that my eyes, the first ever to follow this particular path of story, were leaving a sort of watermark as they traced each letter.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

331. Shavuot morning, 5766, part 1


At that moment in the museum, I think I recognized my own brokenness in the torn scroll. She had been waiting all this time so that we could help each other; my tears nourished her parched soul, her pain shocked me into awareness. It took a few more years before I knew of what I was aware, but that scroll planted the seed.

We sat on the floor in a circle all last night to study, the lights low and floor strewn with rose petals. (As we did last year, although the petals had been carefully arranged before we got there. This time, instead, we picked our own flowers from a basket and created from them what we wished. Each few feet of space reflected its artist: a mosaic of petal fragments; the whole flower, unadorned; a mandala of careful, concentric rings of pink, white and red.) At 5AM we went upstairs to stand on the sidewalk for a few minutes and wonder how night could have passed in such a short time.

(To be continued.)

Friday, June 02, 2006

330. Water


Until last week when we welcomed our new Torah, I hadn't thought about this moment at the Holocaust Museum for years. At every service, festive as well as mournful, we recall the exodus of our ancestors from Egypt; we never rejoice without acknowledging, in some small way, those whose suffering made our own lives possible. Maybe this is why I couldn't dance and sing that afternoon without remembering the broken, paralyzed scroll that was no longer able to hear our chanting. I think I was celebrating in its honor, hoping our joy was great enough to reach all the way to Washington, D.C. and ease its pain.

Is it crazy to imagine that a Torah scroll has feelings? No more so than waiting for your heart to swell with love as you look at a photo, or watch a ring as it's placed on your finger. A Torah scroll bears our feelings, reflected in our understanding of her words. If we are passionate beings, if we can be tender, yearn, hate, so can a Sefer Torah. As a friend wrote beautifully on Beliefnet:

"The Torah is in love with us," my rabbi said. "The Torah wants us to read and study her, because when she is seen, she comes alive."

Last night at the Tikkun leil Shavuot we compared Torah to water; like a river, like the blood in our veins, it stagnates when unable to flow and change. Somewhere around 3AM, we studied the lines said at each Torah service just as the scroll is removed from the Ark:

When the Ark went forth, Moses said, "Arise, O God, and scatter your enemies! Let your foes flee before you!!" When it came to rest, he said, "Return, O God, [to] the myriads of Israel's thousands.
--Numbers 10:35-36

The ancient rabbis determined that this passage, set off in the written scroll by two little letter nuns's above and below, was "out of place"--Numbers 10 was only a temporary destination. Just as the tabernacle itself wandered in the desert, these lines about coming and going are equally unsettled. Maybe, suggests the Talmud, they're really another book of the Torah itself, one as yet mis-filed? Those surrounding nun's even look a little like 'Atzei Hayyim, Trees of Life, the wooden dowels upon which the scroll is rolled. Perhaps the passage represents a kind of knowledge which must always move and be reinterpreted to stay alive--the new Torah, waiting on a blanket of words to return our embrace, that we welcomed today at dawn after a night of dancing with its words.

(To be continued.)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

329. At the foot of the mountain

In a few minutes I'll head off to the synagogue for the beginning of Tikkun leil Shavuot, a night of study to remind us how the Israelites prepared to receive the Torah at daybreak. Right now, at this very moment in New York City, the sky has turned black and a storm rages; lightning cracks, thunder grumbles, car alarms wail, and wave after wave of rain beats against the window. It's exactly as it should be. Tomorrow morning at 5AM, I will chant the section right after the Ten Commandments:

All the people saw the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram's horn, and the mountain smoking. The people trembled when they saw it, keeping their distance... "Do not be afraid," replied Moses to the people. "God only came to raise you up."

On this evening of the giving of the Torah, may we find new meaning in all words, and never be afraid.