Monday, July 31, 2006

353. Eikha

As if things aren't depressing enough already, this Wednesday night and Thursday are Tisha beAv, the ninth day of the month of Av. It's a minor holiday in the grand scheme of things, but packs a lot of weight: both Temples were destroyed on 9 Av, a date that also commemorates the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Bar Kokhba revolt, the beginning of World War I, the AMIA bombings in Buenos Aires in 1994, and many other tragedies. "When Av enters, joy decreases."

I'm learning to chant chapter 4 of Eikha, Lamentations, traditionally read in the dark while sitting on the floor, as if in mourning, on Wednesday evening. I'm reading it again at the Thursday morning service, and also chanting haftarah (the same one I read when I first learned in 2003) on Thursday afternoon.

Despite appearances, I'm not trying to drown in misery. I've wanted to learn Eikha trop since I first heard it it a few years ago and was intrigued by its pairing of grim words with a gentle, sing-songy melody. (Here's an MP3 of The Virtual Cantor chanting chapter 4, somewhat jauntier than I'll be doing it.) At times it's as repetitive and hypnotic as a lullaby, and then you glance down at the text and are jarred awake:

4:9. Better off were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, for they ooze, pierced by the fruits of the field.
4:10. The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they have become their food in the destruction of the daughter of my people.
4:11. The Lord has spent His fury, He has poured out His fierce anger, and He has kindled a fire in Zion, which has consumed her foundations.

(Chapter 3 is sung a little differently, in a plaintive minor cadence. This makes more sense to me.)

Why is Eikha trop so childlike, so achingly beautiful? I wonder if the ancient rabbis who devised these tunes were trying to make the message more bearable to human ears, or perhaps they believed a simpler melody would encourage us to focus on the words themselves rather than their sounds. (I'm reading Torah again in a few weeks, a tongue-twisting grocery list of 23 non-kosher birds. The trop, thankfully, is exactly the same from line to line, suggesting that the Masoretes were realistic and compassionate guys.)

The haftarah from Isaiah, which is read on the afternoon of all fast days, tempers the day's grief with more positive words:

So says God, "Maintain justice and perform equity, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will reveal itself... To them will I give in My house and within My walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters--I will give them an everlasting name which will remain imperishable."

"A monument and a name," yad vashem. God will be with us forever.

Joy has decreased enough this year. I pray that God will live up to His word and that no new tragedies are added to those for which we mourn on Tisha beAv.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

352. Sadness, part 2


My fellow posters did indeed disagree, but not in the way I hoped. Well, maybe it's time for the Jewish people to disappear, they said (the Jewish respondents, the only ones who could get away with this answer and not be banned forever from our little online community). Remember Rome? Civilizations come and go. Yeah, it would be sad--but what's Israel anyway, except a patch of land that's caused problems for centuries? Move all the Jews in Israel to Montana. Israel is just like the U.S., with a useless government that takes advantage of the downtrodden. We should be ashamed of ourselves. Perhaps it's time to make amends.

A number of people agreed, and I knew that each of them represented many others offline.

I expected criticism of Israel, but not to the point of complete lack of concern for her life or death. I was incensed, at first, or at least pretended to be--because I also realized that a year or two ago, those words could have been mine. Until my trip this past December, I had little sense of any connection to Israel. Why, I wondered, should I pray about this tiny, distant, confused place? What relevance beyond historical curiosity and appreciation of her pluck did modern Israel have to my religious life, let alone any other aspect of my Judaism?

Also, we're people of the book--so what if the book moved somewhere else? Didn't the diaspora prove we were a portable bunch? Let the Catholics have their Vatican, the Muslims Mecca. We're different. Jewish prayer can take place almost anywhere; time, rather than place, is sacred. And so the more I became involved in Jewish life, the less I understood of why Israel still mattered. It seemed that we lived and worshipped just fine without her.

Someone recently asked how chanting Torah changed my connection to Judaism. I answered quickly, surprised at what came out of my mouth: The words in the scroll are concrete, I said. When I follow them with a yad and voice their syllables I feel Jewish in a tangible way, more deeply than through prayer, study, or even gemilut hasadim, acts of goodness and lovingkindness that bring the Torah to life. And visiting Israel had the same effect. Now that I've run my fingers through her soil, seen her natural beauty, heard the music of a language I can imitate but barely comprehend, she's no longer just an idea about which I feel vaguely guilty for not understanding. Now she exists. That visceral reaction was my missing piece. Was I crazy for needing physical proof? I don't think so; despite our world of ideas, we humans still must see, feel, hear, to fully comprehend. Visiting Israel was like the touch of a hand on mine, the electricity of looking directly into another's eyes and not being able to turn away.

Last year at the Ne'ila service that concluded Yom Kippur, I led the congregation in Hatikvah, "The Hope," the Israeli national anthem--and felt like a hypocrite. Did I really hope for her? I do now. I want her to exist not just because the liturgy says so, or because the sacredness of time wouldn't matter but for that place, or because my great-grandparents died for her. I want Israel to exist for me, selfishly, because I have so much more to learn.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

351. Sadness, part 1

I try to stay away from politics on this blog, but I can't right now.

Last week I got into a protracted, painful discussion about Israel on an online bulletin board to which I've belonged since 1993. There are only about a hundred of us these days, and arguments are few; debates have gotten so predictable over the years that we mostly talk about mundane New York-centric issues instead, like what you should pay the cleaning person. Our little community is equivalent to hanging out at the corner bar, needing each others' presence even though only some of us love each other.

One of us is an American who lives in Beirut, where he teaches at a university. He's chosen to stay even as bombs rain down a few blocks from home. I've been reading his words for years, including recent posts assuring us that he was OK. Our responses turned into a taking of sides, and I found myself one of few--among mostly Jewish, mostly secular, and all politically left-of-center participants in the conversation--who voiced any support for Israel. I readily admitted to confusion, sadness, and horror at the killing of innocent people in Lebanon. I expressed equal horror that Hezbollah is trying to destroy Israel.

One of my rabbis pointed out this morning that we can find justification in Jewish law for both aggression and restraint at times of war--but have only recently begun to wrestle with this question, since it was a moot point for so many centuries when the Jewish people were powerless. We barely know how to argue the topic. And I admitted defeat even before the online match began; I have no idea how to find an answer, or even if one is possible. But I did voice hope that Israel would survive, since I believe the Jewish religion can't exist without a Jewish presence, or promise of such, on that patch of land. The concepts and entities of Judaism and Israel, although often in opposition, nevertheless require each others' blood and soul. Our liturgy and holy days commemorate Israel's seasons, rainfall, cycle of crops, and our yearning to be on her soil. Even as the Jewish people are spread firmly throughout the diaspora, that yearning stands in for hopes of peace and a more perfect world.

We're used to this kind of holy substitution. After the destruction of the second Temple, the great rabbis of old gave us the institution of the synagogue and fixed prayer in place of ritual sacrifice and, despite all odds, Judaism flourished. That we even exist after the Shoah, let alone have a State of Israel, is a miracle of resilience. But I don't think we can take another loss, another extinguishing of hope, even though we've managed to hold on for a few millennia. There just aren't enough Jews left in the world, and too many people want us dead. I wrote online of despair at my own pessimism, and waited for someone to disagree.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

350. Shiva minyan, part 2


I've been to shiva minyanim only for people who died at a ripe old age. There were some others--college students killed by cars, young women by cancer--but I wasn't needed, or overlooked the emails accidently on purpose. I was afraid, it was too hard, and many other excuses.

But the ones I do mange to attend--what riches are revealed! The other night Fannie's sons told us how she always came to their rescue, no matter where they happened to be in life or the world. And how she milked every moment when it was her turn to read a paragraph of the haggadah at the Passover seder, slowly removing her glasses from her pocketbook, perching them on her nose, hunting for the page, and reciting her part of the story with Oscar-quality drama. At a shiva minyan last month Esther's in-laws praised her frequent, unbidden, and invaluable advice--always dispensed with a glass of Jack Daniels. Sophie's minyan was at her apartment in the middle of the Theater District, which seemed an odd place for an 85-year-old woman to live until I Iearned from the friends spilling out her front door that Sophie was a pioneering Broadway agent, attended in her last days by a bevy of handsome young men to whom she'd given their first breaks. I heard about Max's devotion to the labor movement from a tough-looking union organizer with tears streaming down his cheeks. I saw a photo of Sarah at 25, a few weeks before she met her husband at our synagogue over 60 years ago. Small tales of love given and received, shining like slivers of light from a door left slightly ajar.

Right now I know three people nearing the end of their long, marvelous stories. Although, thank goodness, they're not among my closest friends or relatives, they are part of my life and the lives of others I hold dear. I was too young and afraid to be fully present when my parents and aunts and uncles died. I still don't know how to do that, don't want to. But I've learned to be selfish, thanks to all these shiva minyanim: I need to hear the stories now, while I can still ask questions. I listen and honor by proxy, imagining other questions asked and answered and a nodding yes, we know, we love you, from above.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

349. Shiva minyan, part 1

Last night I attended a shiva minyan for a member of my synagogue whose mother died on Friday. It's traditional to hold evening services at the mourner's home during the shiva period, seven days following the funeral. During that week the immediate family of the deceased is taken care of by their community--prayers, as well as platters of food, come to them so they don't have to expend energy on anything except contemplation of their loss.

My synagogue takes this tradition seriously, even though most of us don't go to evening services during the week. I'm one of many who volunteer to attend shiva minyanim (pl. of minyan) when the family isn't sure the requisite ten Jewish adults will be present. Others help mourners by doing tahara, attending to the body of the deceased before he or she is buried. One day I might be brave enough for this honor, but not yet.)

My only responsibility at a shiva minyan is to be there. I don't even have to pray, if I so choose. I can fulfill my duty simply by occupying space in someone's living room. We're asked to to arrive on the dot, leave promptly, and say little in between; this is the family's time, and the presence of strangers can be intrusive. It sounds easy on paper, but has been an extraordinary challenge for me. One of our rabbis describes a house of a mourning as a kind of twilight zone, an in-between place apart from the rest of the universe whose inhabitants are learning to cross the bridge that spans past and future. Stepping into that world is a privilege, an encounter with all sorts of fears of the unknown, and a reminder to live as fully as the remarkable person I get to glimpse when the family shares stories at the prayer service.

(To be continued.)

Monday, July 24, 2006

348. The score

An aside having little to do with chanting or Judaism, but much to do with hinei ma tov umaniym, living together in harmony:

I love my city. Yesterday I went into the deli that occupies a storefront of my apartment building in order to stock up on seltzer. The deli specializes in food like Twinkies and fried onion rings, so I try to avoid temptation and shop there as infrequently as possible. But I'm a big fan of their ATM machine, my closest possible source of cash. Since most of the deli's patrons show up to buy lottery tickets, I rarely have to wait on line. It's a businesslike kind of place, with few people hanging around for conversation.

Yesterday, however, I walked in as a ruddy-faced blonde gentleman in his 40s with a generous beer belly was grilling the Egyptian store owner who stood behind the counter.

"What do you mean, you don't know?" he said in a booming voice. "I bet the next person who walks in here would know!" As if on cue, the door opened and a young Asian man entered and headed for the magazines.

"Excuse me," bellowed the beer belly. "Who won the game today?"

"Mets," answered the Asian man. "But I don't know the score."

"Thank you!" said the beer belly." "See?" he smiled at the store owner.

The Egyptian man leaned intently over the counter. "And what sport is this?" he asked.

"Baseball," explained the blonde guy. "You see, there are two teams in New York, the Mets and the Yankees..." I paid for my seltzer as the men stood head to head on either side of the counter, deep in conversation. I wondered if the store owner would then give the beer belly guy a primer on soccer, er, football. I wondered if the leaders of their respective countries could ever be this congenial with each other. I wished I could invite those leaders, and a few others, over to the deli for a beer or two and a lesson on how to live with their neighbors.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

347. Cured?

Back to chanting....

It's confirmed: I'm an overflowing cauldron of insecurity. I'll be helping to lead High Holy Day services once again this year, which everyone, except me, figured I knew. I'm very happy, and feeling foolish for indulging in so much self-doubt.

I read my 29 verses without incident at the minyan on Monday and Thursday mornings. How I wish I could do this each time I chant (but it's only possible during the summer, when b'nai mitzvah don't need to practice before their big Shabbat debuts). So I was able to assure my irrational self that I had learned the correct section, and that those words really were in the scroll (i.e., of all the humashim in the world, I did not posses the only one containing a strange, alternate version of Parashat Mattot-Masei). I was thrilled to to see that the line breaks of our new Torah matched those of my tikkun. (At least for this section; how I yearn for assurance that this will always be the case.) And I was barely nervous, even while chanting in front of the whole congregation yesterday morning. Maybe I'm cured?

I've finally made friends with this new scroll; we were on shaky ground for a few weeks. Her letters now look friendly and legible rather than fat and square. I like her. I wish she were a little shorter, though; I need to stand on my tiptoes when reading the top of a column. But this I can live with, as as my older relatives would say (with appropriate hand gesture and sigh of resignation).

Saturday, July 22, 2006

346. Hope, part 2

(Continued from this post. I had every intention of finishing the thought much sooner, but instead spent my free time this week doing what this blog is about: learning 29 verses to chant this past Shabbat, a chapter of Eikha [Lamentations] for Tisha beAv next Wednesday, some more verses for this coming Shabbat, and brushing up on the haftarah for next Thursday afternoon. Whew. Only during the summer do I have time for such fun stuff.)


So, having attended many interfaith events in a city full of progressive thinkers, I figured I wouldn't be surprised by anything at the blog con. I'd be a little bored by the politics. I'd find the non-Jewish religious services intellectually engaging but emotionally neutral, and would temper my reactions for fear of patronizing the Other and (secretly) somehow betraying my own tradition.

I was wrong on all accounts. Perhaps it was the space we occupied for panels and worship alike, a ballroom high above thick treetops with a hazy silhouette of New York in the distance. Maybe the safety of being close to home made it easier for me to take chances. The place belonged to no one tradition and all of them, as we seemed to float together on a wide carpet of clouds and green. Rabbi Waskow reminded us that the unpronounceable Old Testament name of God sounded just like an exhaled breath if you did try to pronounce it. And so we did, using different words to articulate the breath while sharing and celebrating its common origins.

Most surprising to me, as I pondered in the previous post, was discovering how much I had in common with these thirty people from different traditions and parts of the country. We shared political opinions, a disgust with the current administration, and--although as a citizen of the New York liberal bubble, I wouldn't have admitted it--an awareness of our lack of power as holders of the minority point of view. I was awed by the resolve of those who were lone, tireless progressive voices in their counties and states. I was ashamed for thinking that enough people in my city were already yelling, so I didn't have to. I left the conference determined to be heard.

And, buoyed by a room of open hearts and minds, I joined in Buddhist meditation on Saturday morning and allowed myself to be wrapped in a spirit of calm. I bowed deep on the floor as part of Muslim Zikr worship on Saturday night, feeling the same shock of humility as during the Aleinu Malhuyot prayer, the "Great Aleinu" of the High Holy Days. How different we Jews might be if we did this daily, instead of just once a year. On Sunday morning we sang "Amazing Grace," which always reminds me of the goodness in this world, and I marveled at a Christian prayer that, as in Kabbalistic tradition, invoked the angels and four corners of the earth. I joined everyone in receiving a blessing during Communion and, thanks to Rabbi Waskow, saying hamotzi over the bread and sharing in a ritual that had always felt a little threatening.

Even the Jewish service was a new experience. Friday evenings at my synagogue consist of singing, dancing, and Hebrew prayer, with few words in English. To hear Rachel's wonderful selections of poetry in a language I could understand was a very different and beautiful way of welcoming Shabbat.

I thank all the participants for reminding me, especially at this time of war, that there is hope, and that it lies within each of us. Lorianne spoke of her blog as meditation, and so itself a manifestation of Buddhist worship. I think she's on to something; writing a blog can be a very spiritual act. It's one voice out of many saying Hineni: here I am, the words of my heart and the meditation of my soul. If that isn't holy, what is?

Please read the eloquent comments of other conference participants to get a sense of how profound this weekend was for us all.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

345. Hope, part 1

This weekend I went to a remarkable conference. Because I want to keep this blog anonymous, and attended under my real name without publicly revealing a nom de Internet, I wasn't planning to write about it. But I have to (and trust completely that those who know both names will keep the information private. Much as I need to tell my story, I'm not yet comfortable sharing it with all members of my community.)

I have to write about this weekend because I think it was one of those small sparks that can change the world. It was like an idea from a dream that seems both so real and so impossible that when it does comes to life you have to whack yourself on the head and say, Of course! How could I have doubted?

And, also, oy! I thought I knew the answers, and boy was I wrong. I'm extraordinarily lucky to have found my spiritual home, a marvel of inclusion, interfaith dialogue, and countercultural expressions of faith. But the nature of a sanctuary is to isolate, and I'm ashamed to notice on my own path a creeping weed or two of moral superiority and parochialism. That's not what my community has taught, but rather my own inadequate response. It's a survival mechanism in a scary world, borne out of the best of intentions. I live in a little bubble here in New York, trusting only the edges of this country and assuming that what goes on out there in the middle counts less. Southern accents make me nervous; sometimes I embrace my Christian brethren with one hand on the doorknob. And just as I accuse the Red state people of sticking their fingers in their ears and singing la, la la, I know everything and can't hear you, I'm quite capable of doing the same.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

344b. Singing workshop, part 4


Carl sang the solo the next day as his group performed "Amazing Grace." (Everyone at the workshop is placed in a group of about ten people and a coach, with whom you spend the weekend learning a cappella.) I never really understood the word "grace" until I heard Carl's voice, each note full, sweet, and resonating with peace, strength, comfort, and hope.

To prove even further that traditions can cross boundaries, the coach of his group happened to be the conductor of the fancy upstairs choir at the synagogue where I sang for the High Holy Days three years ago. (I was in the lower-rent downstairs quartet.) It was there I first heard and struggled with a technique called meshorerim ("singers" in Biblical Hebrew), wherein a big-voiced cantor changes keys to his heart's content while voices behind him create on-the fly accompaniment by following hand signals given by one of their own to indicate what kind of chord (I, IV, V, major, minor, etc.) the cantor is about to sing. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, meshorerim is:

"...the manner in which the old-time vocal accompanists rather than choristers... would alternate with and imitate the solo of the precentor."

It was a sort of organized improvisation that required a reliable cantor, much rehearsal, and mind-reading on the part of the signal-giver. Our quartet had none of these attributes. As the the alto and middle of the chord I got off easy, often perching on one note for many measures while everyone else pivoted around me to change tonality. When in doubt I became the Doppler alto, fading in and out at random intervals in case I found myself in D when everyone else had already made it up to A.

So I immediately recognized the little movements the coach made with his fingers as Carl sang and the other nine harmonized in the background. It didn't seem strange at all to combine an Ashkenazic Jewish musical technique with a traditional Christian song to create sounds that transcended all labels. It just seemed beautiful, and full of God.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

344a. Singing workshop, part 3


It was midnight and we all had to get up in a few hours, but we followed Carl to the piano and joined in as he began to play one of his own gospel compositions. "Thank you, Lord," we sang over and over again, weaving harmonies as his old friend the bass, the same one he'd heard outside of that practice room in San Antonio, grounded us with melody below and a new friend, a countertenor, soared above. (Being labeled a refugee in your own country is one way to be marginalized; being denied a place in your high school choir because you don't sound like the stereotype of what a man should is another. But the countertenor got the last word, and will be singing as a freshman at Harvard next year.)

(To be continued.)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

343. Singing workshop, part 2


(The summer is making me very lazy--I just have not been able to focus and write. Sitting in the satellite office, aka Starbucks, hoping a change of scenery will help.)

Do you want to go back to New Orleans? someone asked.

Not yet, said Carl. It's too soon. My goal is move back in a few years, start a business and help rebuild the city, and own a house before I'm 30. My mother tried to do that, but never managed.

San Antonio is too big, he continued. In New Orleans I could walk into any house and find a cousin or friend. The door was always open. It's the only home I'll ever have. He spoke quietly and with the cadence and conviction of a preacher, each sentence a small song. I looked around at a room of held breaths and sad, frozen faces, which he must have noticed as well, because he added: Everything will work out. Katrina was a cleansing. Things were bad in New Orleans, and maybe we needed a fresh start. Katrina taught me that I can do anything--all I need is faith in my ability to stretch and grow.

I felt like I was witnessing the birth of a great leader; I wanted him to finish growing up so he could tell the rest of us how to live. How could he understand, at age 22, what took me a lifetime to learn? Even while surrounded by poverty and violence, he knew that what he did have--family, community, love--was priceless.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

342. Singing workshop, part 1

Carl, aged 22, had spent his whole life in New Orleans. Then Katrina came. His immediate family, family, nineteen if you count cousins, aunts and uncles, owned three cars between them, none suitable to go further than to work and back home. Which was just fine, until the Sunday night everyone was ordered to evacuate. Carl's mother, a woman of great faith, was certain God would protect them just like the other times when they were told to wait out the storm in a shelter. If it was really so serious, why weren't they asked to leave earlier in the day? But God had other plans, including filling their home with seven feet of water. Carl managed to grab just one item before everything floated off--his high school diploma, the first any of his grandmother's grandchildren ever earned. (And there were a lot of grandchildren; Carl has twelve aunts and uncles.)

They waited on a long line for many hours, and finally entered the Superdome. Here his story, as we sat listening in the living room of a Smith College dorm on the first evening of the singing workshop, became a little sketchy. His face, with wide, warm eyes wise beyond their years, seemed suddenly covered with a cloud. I saw horrible things, he said. Suicides, murders, rapes. We were there until Friday. My sister's baby had no food or diapers. Now Carl looked up, the cloud gone. But then we left, he continued, and a bus took us to Texas. My other sister was in a shelter by herself for awhile, but was able to join everyone else in Houston. I went to San Antonio.

Carl planned to go to Houston, as well, but some people heard him playing the piano one afternoon at church and offered him a job leading the choir. So he stayed, and enrolled in college. There, walking past a practice room, he heard interesting sounds. He introduced himself to the musician; they jammed for awhile, and discovered a shared love of gospel music. The friend told him about a singing workshop he'd attended as an inner-city high school student in New York, and Carl decided to apply for a scholarship. And so here he was, along with a motley bunch of twenty-somethings, retirees, a cappella junkies, and many others for whom the poor and displaced of New Orleans were, until this moment, a tragedy that had already moved on in order to make room for the next random, awful turn of events.

(To be continued.)