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.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

385. Coming soon: Yom Kippur

Well, not for another year. But my posts about the holiday will arrive much sooner. The day was wonderful, difficult and intense in the best possible way. And I'm still exhausted. I'll catch my breath shortly.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

384. Teshuva, 5767

Yesterday at services for Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Return, we were reminded that "turning" can't be expressed in an IM, and that fasting is... not fast. Teshuva is out of synch with the pace of our world; it can take a lifetime, and requires assistance. Teshuva reminds me of T'ai Chi, which looks slow but is full of energy. I've been dreaming all week of al chet, times when I missed the mark (translated in the machzor, for sake of poetic brevity, as "sinning"), as if God is making sure my subconscious takes the lead when the rest of me is afraid to. I'm relieved to finally understand that on Yom Kippur we're commanded to contemplate, explore, and even obsess over those efforts but, as it says in Pirkei Avot, "It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it."

The other partner in the dance has to be ready, as well. Yesterday we read a poem by Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Repentance," which concludes:

We—God and man and dogs,
let's repent together
or each one for the other

And forgive us our sins
as we forgive You Yours.

In the relative scheme of things, I've rotated perhaps a few inches over the past few years, pulled and cajoled into that slight movement by the most patient of allies. I did learn one thing: the singing I've done all my life, the choirs, the a cappella groups, was really just to teach me how to pray. (A lesson that will continue for the rest of my days.) But prayer is nothing without action. Now I have to move some more, not push back quite as much. I face Yom Kippur with fear not only of change, but of the end of another cycle of beginning. Sometimes I live too much for the start of things--especially the beginnings that happen this week, which I get to sing and write about, savor, deconstruct (and perhaps, in the process of reviewing all those details, miss the meaning of the bigger picture). But the rehearsals are now over, and I have to keep turning.


Welcome to the few dozen people who've found this blog in past weeks by searching for the words "El Nora Alilah" (and an array of alternate spellings thereof). I also Googled, and learned their literal meaning:

El Nora = "awesome" or "awful" God
alilah = "deed," "work of creation," "plot"

The author of this article interprets the phrase cynically as it relates to the entire story of the Jewish people: "God of awful plotting." I hope and pray that their true meaning is "God of awesome creation." G'mar chatima tovah; may we all be sealed in a Book of Life that's God's best novel ever of amazing and wonderful stories.