Thursday, November 30, 2006

411. Funeral

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

410. Sigh

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

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

Thursday, November 23, 2006

409. Sea monsters

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

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

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

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

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

"It is so embarrassing to live! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great."

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

408. And now for something completely different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2006

407. Pain and comfort

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

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

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

Sunday, November 19, 2006

406. Out of hiding

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 18, 2006

405. Praying is hard

Sometimes weeks are long, and praying is hard.

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

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

Sunday, November 12, 2006

404. A good season

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2006

403. Kumbaya

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

"Fighting Sing-Along Services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of rant... and Shabbat Shlaom!

402. Alert...

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

Thursday, November 09, 2006

401. The ram

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

The Real Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

400. Girl Meets God, part 2

(Continued from part 1.)

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

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

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


p.s.: Happy 400th post!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

399. Girl Meets God, part 1

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

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


Thursday, November 02, 2006

398. Yom Kippur 5767, part 5

(Continued from part 4).

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

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


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

397. Keep going

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

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

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

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

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

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