Saturday, December 30, 2006

433. Not alone

I wasn't feeling well last night and had to skip services, which made me sad. I yearn all week long for Friday night, and the singing, dancing, and company of a few hundred of the best people in the world, although sometimes the idea of sitting with nothing but music and my thoughts for an hour and a half seems unbearable. But I can't imagine being anywhere else. Services are the best and safest place I know to experience joy or despair, concentration or distraction; Kabbalat Shabbat is never less than sanctuary for me in all senses of the word.

But it doesn't work as well when you have a stomach ache. I stayed home and lit candles instead, which I often skip. (In cat-endowed New York City, I know God would also advise against the folly--the sheer stupidity--of leaving home while a fire is burning.) I sat on the sofa for awhile and watched them sway and glimmer, and then davenned Arvit. I've prayed this service on my own before and it always felt like a novelty, superfluous: God already knew what was in my heart, so why bother following rituals whose main purpose was to engage groups? And singing to myself when I was alone: like a falling tree without an audience, did it really matter?

This time it did. As I faced east towards Central Park and Jerusalem and my eyes traced letters and watched them change into words, I thought of the tunes, sighs, and smiles just like my own at this very same moment wherever Jews chose to congregate. I felt far from those people and places, but with them, deeply, as well. I was relieved; always in the back of my mind lurked a doubt that I'd wake up one day and would no longer believe, would be back to the hollower, blinder person I was before I stumbled upon my synagogue. I now understand that distance, whether physical or emotional, will never break my bond. It might loosen, perhaps, or try to slip off, but the threat will always be hollow. I felt connected like a twin who always senses the presence of the other even when they're on opposite ends of the earth; the candles bathed my walls in the light of many more Jews than could ever fit in my apartment.

I watched the flames and read Psalm 97:

Your lightning illumines the globe, fire consumes Your foes.
Mountains melt like wax in Your presence, the earth trembles.

The heavens proclaim Your righteousness;
all people behold Your majesty.

They were right in front of me--the dancing illumination, the melting wax mountains--just like so many other gifts I choose to ignore, or am afraid to see.

Friday, December 29, 2006

432. Mitzrayim

Please join me in sending out your prayers, refuah shleimahs, good vibes, etc. to Rachel at Velveteen Rabbi. I know a little too well the kind of mitzrayim she writes about at Radical Torah. I was very glad to read her words about God's partnership during such unexpected journeys, and echo her wishes for a new year in which we never feel alone--because we never are, an amazing gift.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

431. RIP, G3

My laptop died last night. Condolences accepted, although its demise was not sudden. It was six years old and I basically had to kick it, hold my breath, and pray each time I wanted to turn it on. So I rarely shut down--except last night, right before its final sleep. In a last-ditch attempt at CPR, at 2AM I made an appointment online to drag it at 8AM to the 24/7 "Genius Bar" at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store. Which was kind of fun... unshowered, in sweats, I felt like a native alien amidst the hyper, early-rising tourists. Little kids sat on beanbag chairs playing video games on iBooks. Over in the corner a big group of senior citizens were learning, from a really young, really loud guy, how to create movies and blogs with iLife. I have no doubt the store is this lively even at 4AM, in an only-in-New-York kind of way. They really do have Geniuses at the Bar, however, and everyone's very nice.

I lost nothing important, thank goodness, since the laptop's contents were backed up on my work computer and Google Docs. An old file of blog post ideas bit the dust, but probably for the best... if I still hadn't written about it since making a note last January, it couldn't have been important. Another cheap, old, used iBook is in the mail at this very moment, thanks to Until it arrives, no client presentations and probably fewer posts. I have a hard time writing at my work computer; it feels like work. The sofa or Starbucks with my laptop does not.

I do remember the final note I made on that vanished document:


(To be continued.)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

430. Coffee table

So in a few weeks I'm beginning an occasional hevruta, with my old Torah chanting teacher and a friend also immersed in learning how to chant, to study this massive tome:

Chanting The Hebrew Bible: The Art of Cantillation, by Joshua Jacobson

The book is 965 pages, each packed with passages like:

The level two dichotomy separates the two clauses of submission from the clause of benediction. The level three dichotomy separates the clause of "dropping" from that of "bowing." In the tevir clause the verb is followed by three complements. The terminator tevir is preceded by its conjunctive, merekha; its remote conjunctive, kadmah, and its tertiary remote, telishah.

At present I understand absolutely none of the above. It is, like the "Seinfeld" episode, not merely a coffee table book but the entire table itself. (Actually, the Shulchan Arukh, the "Set Table," an exhaustive 16th century catalogue of Jewish law, isn't a bad comparison.) There's too much information in this veritable Talmud of cantillation for one person to absorb in a lifetime; maybe between the three of us we'll de-mystify a few pages. The marble-slab-like publication has sat on my shelf for a year, mostly collecting dust, except for two months ago when I was chanting a verse (Gen. 5:29) that featured one little word (zeh, meaning "this") mysteriously crowned by two trop markings. How could fourteen notes be stretched across one, count 'em, one syllable? Plus the pairing of those two symbols was like stripes and polka dots--they simply did not go together. I checked a few different sources; all included the two, without explanation. And then one day, the slap-my-forehead moment: aha, Jacobson would know! He did, although finding where in the book took about as much time as it did to learn the entire aliyah. But there it was, on p.417--yes, it's a rare case (three instances in the entire Torah). Yes, sing them both. And so I did, after which people came up to me and said, "Wow! What was with the zeh?"

Why do I want to learn this stuff? What impact does it have one my daily life and the state of the world? I have no idea, but it's fascinating and I can't get enough. I look forward to many other conundrums solved in the course of our possibly endless course of study.

Monday, December 25, 2006

429. Peace

With the psalmist's wishes for peace that I'll send out soon via this year's holiday card, at left (featuring a photo I took last year in Israel and which is being printed about three weeks too late, of course), I hope all who celebrate this holy day are happy and safe with friends and family. And that the rest of us are enjoying Chinese food and a movie, or whatever, and awaiting a new year that brings out the best in ourselves and everyone around us.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

428. Compassion

I started writing this post Friday morning when I got back home after a funeral. I really want people around me to stop dying. I didn't know her; her son is a friend from my synagogue, and from the hespedim (eulogies) I learned that she was tough, opinionated, and invited all the friends in her life to become family. I didn't know her, but I miss her anyway. (I await with impatience the arrival of those seven babies; it's the least God can do for us this week after taking yet another good person.)

Once again I listened to the rabbi sing El Maleh Rahamim, the one prayer that stuck with me after all those years away. I hear it only during Yizkor and funerals; some synagogues sing it weekly, which doesn't seem right. Like Kol Nidre, it should be meted out only on special occasions.

It's the saddest melody I've ever heard. Most Ashkenazic-flavored prayers, full of minor thirds, plaintive wailing, and slow, heavy cadences, blur together in an indistinct wash of memories from my childhood. But this one left a mark. That first Yizkor after I joined my synagogue--it must have been during Passover, 1999--the first few notes of El Maleh were like an electric shock, dredging up sadness, longing, confusion, and a whole palette of feelings I really didn't want. Eventually I came to appreciate the gift, given in a room filled with love and tears, of this sudden, safe immersion. The cantor at my synagogue, unlike most cantors, sings it gently, compassionately, and without histrionics, like a whisper from beneath the folds of his tallit.

I was able to find two versions of the prayer online. (It seems almost blasphemous to listen to this as entertainment--I invite those who click on the links to do so with peace and reverence.) The first version (click on "Hören" at the lower right to download and play the RealAudio file), on a site about the Holocaust, contains extra words in memory of those who perished, and I'm guessing is sung by a man who himself suffered great losses.

The second (click on "soundfiles/rahamim.rm"; there's some speaking before the singing begins) is slicker and a bit melodramatic (i.e., traditional), but quite moving nevertheless.

Friday, December 22, 2006

427. Yom Kippur 5767, part 6

(Continued from here.) I realized I never finished writing about the High Holy Days. Perhaps recalling that sacred time will stop me from whining to everyone and his uncle about my cold.)

I walked the ten blocks home after Musaf amazed that the world was still going on, that people rushed and shopped and street vendors hawked tacos and Italian ices even though I was fasting. I felt like I was onstage in a play where the background changed for each scene; it might look like I moved from place to place, but in reality I was quite stationary. Most of me, aside from my actual body, remained in the earlier moments of prayer that had just passed. I nodded hello en route to a dozen equally dazed friends coming back from different shuls.

Back in my apartment, I sat on the couch and picked up the book I had set aside for just these few hours: The Ineffable Name of God: Man, a collection of achingly beautiful poems in Yiddish and English written by Abraham Joshua Heschel when he was in his 20s. I read three pages, was awed, and promptly fell asleep. I awoke with a start and realized my brain could hold no further enlightenment. I sang through Minha once again, instead, and suddenly it was time to go back.

We gathered in the little room next to the church's cavernous sanctuary, the rabbi, musicians, and I, and chatted about TV, cough drops, and other inconsequential topics. Most us didn't have an easy fast; some of us almost fainted. We seemed awfully giddy, considering the imminent culmination of the entire day's drama. Better, I guess, to face God with chutzpah and a smile than be distracted by our own exhaustion while trying to rush past those closing gates.

(Continued here.)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

426. Seventh night

I am coughing and sneezing and generally crabby, and words fail me. So, instead, the view out my window this evening:

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

425. Pinch of salt

The Velveteen Rabbi's astute and beautiful post about prayer as cooking, and the shaliah tzibur as a chef who decides when to add a little more spice or simmer, instead, for the comfort of the congregation, got me thinking about how I pray. On the one hand, services at my synagogue are traditional; we follow Conservative liturgy, all in Hebrew. Within that framework, however, change is constant; melodies, harmonies, personalities and pairings of prayer leaders shift on a weekly basis. It's not a democracy, and all decisions are made by clergy without benefit of a ritual committee. But congregants are close partners, with our input happening at the moment of prayer--and since the rabbis and cantor pray with us, not at us, they can improvise to fit the mood as needed. Fixed prayer becomes fluid, fluidity predictable. In many ways our style of worship goes against all prevailing wisdom about how to make people comfortable during religious ritual--and yet people show up, lots of them.

I'm reminded of my painting studies in college (while pursuing that most practical of majors, Art). I decided, as a freshman, that I didn't like color; there was just too much to think about. I only wanted to create in black and white. So I stretched this as far as possible: huge charcoal drawings, tiny, detailed pen and ink studies, panoramic landscapes rendered with 15 different weights of pencil and 12 varieties of eraser. The world of black and white seemed endless. Eventually I had to surrender to oils and acrylics, and did make peace with Alizarine Crimson and Cerulean Blue. But nothing was ever as much fun as pencil on paper.

Sometimes constraint--ritual--can be the best fuel for creativity. Shlihei tzibur and congregants alike at my synagogue honor each others' role in the process and share unusual levels of trust: the congregation in our service leaders, to keep prayer fresh and challenging within a fixed liturgy; and leaders in each other and in the congregation, to allow space for taking chances and for honest, immediate responses. Some people find the whole thing very weird and foreign, and prefer less surprise. Others assume it's all scripted, the work of some distant master chef. It's hard to imagine such rich flavors could arise organically, with pinches of salt added by the customers themselves--yet they do.

I've always been attracted to this kind of tension... do I follow the recipe, or invent my own? I want to take the easy way out, yet hate to cede control. For whatever reason, the flavor of prayer at my synagogue--the stock of the soup, the blend of spices, and the particular freedom I have to stir it myself--satisfies both of these opposing sets of tastebuds.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

424. Abrupt

I led another shiva minyan tonight. Something strange is in the air; two weeks ago we had four deaths, but last week (among various parents and grandparents) six births. And then this week, five more deaths. Maybe the universe will be symmetrical and seven babies will arrive over New Year's. I hope so.

This woman's father died suddenly last week. At the previous minyanim I led, tables were set and books carefully shelved; maybe those families found solace in cleaning while awaiting the inevitable. This apartment, in contrast, was filled with piles of newspapers, love, and numbness. People wandered in and out. A few hundred snapshots, from old scalloped black-and-whites of carefully coiffed hairdos to Polaroids of a grandfather captured in motion blur as he pushed a gleeful infant on a swing, were strewn across the dining room table like the crime scene of a life abruptly pulled into a tight embrace. They didn't have a minyan at first, although people had been visiting all day; for awhile I wondered if they'd cancel the service. Then a friend got on the phone and called more friends, and I understood that they would have recruited strangers on the street if needed. Having a minyan, for this family, was like wearing shoes in winter; there was no choice. Grief wasn't supposed to be lonely.

A friend of the bereaved, wanting to make sure her loved ones were in good hands, once again quizzed me in the nicest possible way about my non-rabbi credentials. Just like the other two times, I hear myself talking calmly and slowly and see clenched shoulders drop, iron faces soften. My role is to be neutral, quick, and quiet, and pay complete attention. I wonder why the other sister doesn't speak, and who's the man in the crocheted kipa? I feel like a nosy sponge. The daughter looks me right in the eye and cries for ten minutes as she speaks about a father who, each and every day of her life, told her she was beautiful. I feel guilty--who am I, a stranger, to merit the gift of such honesty? The least I can do is be authentic in return. I try. I give a 30-second d'var, hoping that sharing of memories during shiva is like the lighting of Hanukkah candles at this darkest time of year, a promise of the return of light and comfort. I tell her how blessed I am to get a glimpse of this wonderful man. My words feel scripted and inadequate.

But now I understand what the rabbi said about a house of mourning as a kind of twilight zone, a bridge between worlds upon which outsiders are privileged to step. I used to be scared of this place. As a service leader, my task to impose some order on the messy business of sadness, I feel like we've reached a truce. Maybe this sense of peace will follow me when I'm the one crossing the bridge, whatever chasm it might span.

Monday, December 18, 2006

423. Wild wedding

One more question: why do I so love this version of Lekha Dodi?

Lecha Dodi R. Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz--Breslov Hassidism

(Yes, the page is in Hebrew--PC users, click on the upper left arrow. Mac users and others for whom a non-functioning audio player pops up, click on the upper left "Quality Audio" link. On my computer this added two links to the player. The link on the right will download a Zip file of a .wma that you can open with Windows Media Player.)

(And here are many other wonderful takes on Lekha Dodi from that same great site.)

We've often sung the slower first half of this exultant melody at my synagogue on Friday nights, but only recently added the second part (about 6' 13" sec. into the recording). We do it much faster than in this version, which I can't help but imagine is performed by a bunch of men in black hats and long beards shuckling in front of an old-fashioned microphone on a rickety wooden table in their 19th-century beit midrash. These sweet, vulnerable voices rejoice and plead at the same time: welcome, Sabbath Bride, and don't ever leave!--even though we know you must. We always dance at the end of Lekha Dodi to a rotating cast of ecstatic, Sephardic-tinged melodies, transporting the Moorish-style Sanctuary back to its real home of sand, colorful rugs, and lots of wine. But this melody takes me instead to a wild wedding somewhere in deepest Brooklyn, everyone a little giddy and drunk on Slivovitz. On Friday the tune seemed to bathe us all in a Shabbat glow, even though the sun had set; no one wanted to go back to their seats.

I hear music like this, accessible to the entire universe in this "Year of You," and wonder when the rest of the world will discover it, retire all those other dirge-like versions of Lekha Dodi, and start having as much fun on Friday nights as I do.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

422. Some questions

Why has someone else in France (or maybe it's the same Google searcher as before) stumbled upon "on chanting" en route to "rabbi fever"? Why did eight people over two days last week, from all different parts of the country, find me by typing "kumbaya definition"?

How's the health of the friend or relative of whomever searched for "heart attack during Shabbat service"? A refuah shleimah (get well soon) to you.

I guess some things in this life are meant to remain mysteries.

I just added a new item to the left side of this page: the JTA Jewish news RSS feed. Why? Because I thought it was cool that I could, and seeing it every day will force me to read Jewish news (or at least the headlines). The JTA ("Jewish Telegraphic Agency") is a wonderful organization that's been gathering and disseminating global Jewish news since 1917 from across the entire spectrum of political and religious beliefs.

Last question of the morning: why did I wake up with a sore throat? Better now than right before major holidays involving singing, I guess. But, feh.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

421. Rededication

The other night on a repeat of "Grey's Anatomy," Meredith is wooed by Finn and McDreamy, her two boyfriends. It's fun, although stressful. But McD realizes he will inevitably cause her pain, and bows out of the race. And then Meredith sees the truth: McD is "the one," not only because he's willing to give her up out of love, like in the Solomon story, but also because the thought of really, truly living without him seems impossible.

This week I also engaged in an exhausting struggle with Jacob's angel (metaphorically--the problem, alas, has nothing to do with handsome actors, doctors, or any other similar creatures on heaven or earth). I don't usually find midrash in TV shows, but yesterday realized that the answer might, just might, be the thing I was trying to push away. I may be wrong--but even if so, the insights I gained during the wrestling match make me want to sit back, light candles, and rededicate. It's worth a celebration.

And so I had one this morning, chanting the maftir for the first Shabbat of Hanukkah. It's not the most interesting part of the story, but makes me very happy nevertheless. I love singing the actual word "hanukkah" at the end and then repeating "nasi ehad layom" ("one chieftain each day") in succeeding triumphant tropes, as if to make sure everyone knew that everyone would get a chance. They bring the same gifts over and over again, which seems to be just fine with God--as commentary in Etz Hayim notes, although we all pray with the same words, our experience of those prayers, our true offerings, are unique and personal.

But the real reason this portion makes me happy: exactly one year ago at the Kotel, I read the paragraphs that immediately follow. I sing and am back on those steps with all my friends, drawing strength from dusty stones, yellow sunlight on sand, and the souls of thousands of pilgrims who stood on that same spot with their sacrifices, as well as of those who came to discover what their gifts were supposed to be. This morning the rabbi spoke of the tensions of this holiday--confront the complexities of a story about assimilation and guerrilla warfare, or ignore messy details and focus instead on children's games and sepia-tinged nostalgia?--and I will add another: do what's comfortable, or do what's right but very difficult? I hope each night's candles help reveal another facet of this and all our shadowed and complex dilemmas.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

420. Condensed version, part 2

(Continued from the previous post--here's the rest of the outline of my talk last Shabbat, and also the super-condensed version of this entire blog.)


"I joined the choir, and was amazed that I could actually be a part of services.

The music--Jewish music in general--took awhile for me to get used to. At first I didn't like it at all. I was a real snob and thought that only Western music, Bach, Brahms, etc., was any good. But eventually it grew on me.

One day about five years ago my friend C. said, 'I want to learn to chant Torah, and I want my friends to learn with me.' She basically gave us no choice in the matter, and recruited a bunch of us for a class. I had nothing better to do and it sounded interesting, so I went along with it--I never before thought I might like to chant, or imagined why in the world I would want to.

I found it very hard at first. I was used to Western notation, reading notes on a page, and this was very different. I was terrified the first time I chanted; my knees were shaking so hard I thought I'd fall over. But, to my surprise, I didn't feel at all alone at the bima, very different from being on stage--I really sensed the strength of everyone in the room, like they were holding me up. I knew I couldn't have gotten through it if not for their support. This feeling is still with me every time I chant, as if I draw energy from the people who listen. Even if I screw up, which I have, I always feel stronger when I finish than when I started.

Other things I love about chanting Torah:

• It's an actual, visceral connection to thousands of years of Judaism. I can see and touch it on that scroll. I'm part of the river of time when I read. I never before felt so connected to being Jewish.

• I get to sing music of my own tradition that makes me feel as good--but without the guilt--as when I sang Christian sacred music.

• I love the process of learning. Even though it's mostly repetition, it's never boring. It's actually very relaxing and meditative. Life is complicated, but this is straightforward and rewarding: somehow, after practicing my portion over and over again, it always gets stuck in my brain.

• I think what I like most is that I can't be distracted while I chant. It's just me and the words on the scroll. But I also can't focus on the words too much, because then I'll lose the rhythm of memorization and get confused. So I'm caught between two kinds of time--the time of details, and of the big picture. I'm very much in the moment but also apart from it. And in that place I have no choice except to be as honest as possible. There's nowhere to hide.

It's still terrifying at times, but always very profound. Thank you all for letting me share these thoughts."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

419. Condensed version, part 1

This past Shabbat morning I did something new and wonderful: I was the hazzanit for a meditation service. A rabbi at my synagogue, part of the team that leads monthly Friday night mediation services, also teaches a course in Jewish spirituality; this service was for her students.

We sung the first few lines of a selection of prayers, and then sat in silence for a few minutes after each. We also studied this week's Torah portion, and I chanted some verses of Vayishlah. Then I was asked to speak about why I like to chant and how I learned--essentially condensing all I've thought about in this blog (unknown to those at the service) into about five minutes. I really enjoyed the challenge of this process, and was gratified that people wanted to hear what seemed to me like the very self-centered story of my spiritual life. Here's an outline of what I said (written for speaking, so a little stylistically sparse):

"I guess you could describe the way I grew up as halfway Orthodox and not very interested. My father was from Russia and traditionally observant, although out of a sense of obligation more than anything else.

My mother wasn't into it at all. Some things we observed strictly, like kashrut--others not at all, like Shabbat. It worked out fine but was a little schizophrenic, and I was confused.

I went to a very bad Orthodox Hebrew school for six years. Everything was done by rote. I learned nothing and hated every minute.

I got out when I was 12, my parents got divorced, and I didn't sent foot in a synagogue again for years. But I never stopped being kosher, although my mother did; she was thrilled to start eating BLTs. Maybe because I went to Hebrew school for so long, that connection seemed very important to me. But nothing else about Judaism did, and I felt like a hypocrite.

At the same time, I got involved in choral singing. I always knew I would be an artist when I grew up, but music was my big hobby. I think being in a choir was a good counter to the solitude of being an artist.

I hated being on stage, and was shy and self-conscious about anyone hearing my voice--but in a choir I could make music and hide at the same time, as well as be a part of something larger than myself. When I sang in choirs I felt like I was able to touch something magical. It was intoxicating.

The only problem: most of what I sang was Christian sacred music, which I loved--and which made me feel like an even bigger hypocrite, because nice Jewish girls weren't supposed to do this. It felt very subversive. But I did it anyway, and loved it.

Fast forward many years to when I stumbled upon [my synagogue], a whole other story I won't go in to. For me it was the first time ever that I found a kind of Judaism that was relevant and spoke to my life."

(Continued here.)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

418. Jacob, part 2


I remembered the rabbi's suggestion during our class two years ago and prepared a short d'var Torah (or, as he said back then in Ashkenazic style, "Just a little wort...") to offer after the service. Although I've written a few of these, I'd never spoken about Torah in front of a group. It felt very chutzpadik (and in fact I had a conversation with a guest right before we began who zeroed into all my doubts by kindly but insistently demanding to know why I, a mere layperson, had the right to stand in front of the group and pray--I gave him a good answer, and was not unnerved). I was a little terrified it wouldn't make sense, but the family was very appreciative. Here's an outline of what I said:

"In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlah, after Jacob wrestles with the angel and has a dramatic reunion with his brother Esau, he goes back home to Canaan and sets up camp and an altar right outside the city. The great Hassidic commentator the Sfat Emet noted that teachers of old interpreted this line, "He camped in front of the city," to mean that the place was gracious and holy for everyone who lived there. But unlike sacred time, which has been holy from the very beginning, the moment God created the universe, sacred space becomes holy only when good people like Jacob and the Israelites occupy it. [I forgot to mention that this interpretation comes from Art Green, commenting upon the Sfat Emet's commentary.]

I was thinking that by this standard, a house of mourning is one of the holiest places on earth. Everyone who's been here all week brought good memories of love and comfort--that's what fills a place with God. I hope, as this week of shiva ends, you will continue to be able to draw upon and get strength from the holiness you've created together by sharing so much love and comfort in this sacred space."

Being in charge, even though it was just for 45 minutes--making sure everything went according to schedule, announcing pages, trying to act like someone who could offer support--was very profound, and completely different from standing next to a rabbi and singing. A few weeks ago seemed like a dress rehearsal in comparison; this was for real. "I'm an adult now," I thought as I walked back home. It made no sense, but felt a little like that first time I left the Secret Rabbi Room and stepped up to the bima, a fledgling kicked out of the safety of the nest. My challenge now, as always: to figure out what this means in the context of the rest of my life, all the other stuff that has nothing to do with prayer.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

417. Jacob, part 1

(I've barely made a dent my my work since the last post, but I'm taking time to write anyway. So there.)

I got the call last Wednesday to lead another shiva minyan, a third family member of a congregant to die within the week. I'm teaching a friend how to chant; her lesson ended just before the minyan began and we walked over together--until she turned left and I right, so she could attend the other minyan just two blocks away for a different bereaved family. Too much sadness that night in one small part of the neighborhood.

It was the last day of mourning for his father. He wasn't a regular synagogue-goer, but told us he was comforted by the constant buzz of visitors who, each night after the prayer service, offered unfamiliar and sometimes surprising recollections of his dad. Shiva was a way to hold on just a little bit longer. But grasping a memory, he said, was only small consolation compared to hugging an actual, live person, like the early Sunday mornings when he was a kid wrestling and roughhousing with his dad after diving gleefully into his parents' bed before the rest of the house was awake. It struck me as a particularly poignant memory for this week, when we read the story of Jacob wrestling all night long with a mysterious being who gives him a new name, Israel, but won't reveal his own. I think parents and children, like God and the Jewish people, are engaged in a constant wrestling match of love. Sometimes it's painful, sometimes fun, but we all emerge with different names, new identities, and revelations about who we are and what our role should be in this world. The hardest part is knowing when to ignore the pain of battle and simply accept the love and wisdom that, even when cloaked under a long night of darkness, is why we struggle in the first place.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

416. Very good news

I'm not technically affiliated with the Conservative movement, although my practice falls within those lines. But this decision by the Law Committee of the Conservative movement makes me very happy, and is a big step towards granting equal rights to all Jews, and all people, no matter what their sexual orientation:

Conflicting Conservative opinions expected to open the way for gays
By Ben Harris
December 6, 2006

NEW YORK, Dec. 6 (JTA) — The Conservative movement’s highest legal body moved to allow commitment ceremonies for gays and the ordination of gay rabbis.

With the endorsement Wednesday of three conflicting teshuvot, or halachic responsa, by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — two upholding the longstanding ban on homosexuality and one permitting ordination of gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies — it’s likely that other rabbis will now begin performing such ceremonies, comfortable in the knowledge that they enjoy halachic sanction from the movement’s highest legal body. more...

In other, less political developments, I was asked to lead another shiva minyan tomorrow night and on Saturday will be chanting Torah at and helping lead a Shabbat morning service!--not at my synagogue, but at a private meditation class given by one of the rabbis who teach at my synagogue. I was also asked to speak at the service about why I like to chant and how I got started. (I guess I won't have time to read this entire two years' worth of posts.) It's a little daunting, but also very cool, that someone requested these thoughts, as opposed to my usual anonymous flinging out to the universe. In less exciting news, I have enough work for the next two days to keep me busy until June, except I need to finish it all by Friday. So I will forcibly restrain myself from posting again until after Shabbat, much as I hate the thought.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

415. A box

I was reading over my posts about meditation and realizing how negative and snarky some of them are. Mostly I love sitting in silence, but occasionally not. The experience is still new for me, and not without learning curves and growing pains; sometimes my mind just won't shut up, which I know happens to everyone. I've become expert at watching it race past, but hope one day to float with it on a quiet sea, slow as clouds above.

I'm intrigued by the absence of sound during this process. (Although there's usually plenty of noise in my head, which I try my best to ignore.) The quiet continues to remind me of rests in a piece of music, or white spaces between letters in a Torah scroll, but more often conjures up the moments when I'm chanting Torah and feel like I'm in a box. Its walls are the people who surround me; without them I would have no form. The air inside sustaining my breath is the music. As I sing, I can't hear the world beyond the walls at all; it might not even exist. I think this is what meditation is supposed to be, usually called "in the moment" but really so much more--in the self, in the parts of our awareness that are shared with others. Maybe the box is a kind of tabernacle, and as such must occasionally be rededicated and reminded of its holiness.

At the Friday night meditation service a few weeks ago, the rabbi compared Abram's journey into the unknown to the beginning of any new spiritual practice. This time last year I was getting ready to go to Israel, and am now revisiting the Hanukkah Torah portion, the one I read at the Wall, to chant again in a few weeks. That experience did push me onto a new path, did reinvigorate me, although I still have no idea where I'm going. Will chanting those words once again about offerings at the mishkan be my own Hanukkah, my rededication? Will meditation?

(Here's a very good, short introduction to Jewish meditation, which can seem New-Agey compared to established traditions but is in fact a very old practice:

Sunday, December 03, 2006

414. Snore, part 2


The next part of class was study in hevruta (learning pairs) with whomever was sitting to the right. With some horror, I realized that the snoring woman, once she woke up, would be my partner. We were given a text by Rami Shapiro; each of us would comment on it for five minutes as the other listened without interruption, an exercise in being present as much as in exegesis. I began, and she paid rapt attention. Then it was her turn. She didn't talk about the text, although did speak in English, so theoretically I should have understood. I did not. I recall something about the difference between Jews and Christians and why Muslims don't eat meat, but basically she made no sense at all. Time seemed to slow down like in the Star Trek episode, and her voice droned on and on like a car alarm at dawn with no one yet awake to shut it off.

I tried to be mindful and meditative, to live in the moment and remember that all life was a miracle, but just wanted to punch her in the mouth.

I don't know this woman at all; I'm sure she's a good person. I guess I'm not. On the bright side, yesterday at services the rabbi spoke of Jacob's transformation from a wimpy guy who hated the outdoors into a man of strength and deep emotion just like his brother. So when he said to Isaac, "It's me, Esau!" he wasn't lying. He had matured enough to recognize and assert that other, earthier side of himself. (Which, added the rabbi, was why he and Esau would be able to reconcile in next week's parasha.) Maybe God will consider my evil intentions as a marker of growth and continuing character development, rather than adding to my column of lashon hara demerits. Yeah, right.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

413. Snore, part 1

My meditation class is over; it was great, although week three was challenging. It began, as usual, with silence. For days I had been looking forward to sitting in a chair in the middle of an empty Sanctuary and hearing nothing at all. I found a place in the circle, left an empty spot between me and the next person to decrease the chance of distraction, closed my eyes, and focused on my breath. It felt better than a warm bath.

And then I heard it: ssssssh chhhh whooooooo. ssssssh chhhh whooooooo. Over and over again.

The woman next to me was asleep, and snoring. She was also lying on the floor, knees raised and bent and lower legs resting on the seat of a chair in the position assumed by cool, confident meditators who have back problems. Even if I were in pain, I don't think I'd have the guts to be the only upside-down person in a room full of demure normal sitters. I admired the conviction of her individuality, but also wanted to slap a paper bag over her head. No one else seemed to notice the snoring; perhaps I was the only one close enough to hear. I castigated myself for intolerance of the nasally-challenged, and tried to focus. But every time my mind drifted into a zone of peace and calm, the ssssssh chhhh whooooooo, and an occasional snort, jolted me back to reality.


Friday, December 01, 2006

412. In this very place

I subscribe to Sitemeter, and can see which Google search terms lead people to this blog (mostly the word "chanting" and Hebrew phrases like "El Nora Alilah"). The other day I noticed that someone in France found me by typing "rabbi fever." Was that a kind of cultural obsession like "disco fever," I wondered, or more like "dance fever," with the guy who wore really tight pants? Or an illness specific to Jewish leadership (like the search awhile back for "swollen vocal cords clergy")? I clicked on the link that brought this Googler to me, and was amazed to discover I spoke French--I had no idea!--but otherwise gained little insight into the reason behind the query.

But it got me thinking about rabbis. For reasons I don't understand, my parents held teachers, rabbis and their ilk in pretty low regard. I always got the sense that instructing others meant you couldn't do the thing yourself, a very non-Jewish point of view. As a kid, and rabid Star Trek fan, one of my favorite books was "The World of Star Trek" by David Gerrold, in which he divides humanity into three types: creators, producers, and service people. (Why this philosophy stuck with me all these years, I have no idea. But it made quite an impression, maybe because I once equated Gerrold, writer of "The Trouble With Tribbles," with God.) Creators, he wrote, were the best kinds of people. (I sighed with relief, because I knew I'd grow up to be an artist.) Producers--people who made things happen, like my mother, a bookkeeper who kept a business running despite her boss' incompetence, and supermarket managers like my father, who told others what to do and made sure everything was fresh and perfect--were OK, too. Last in the hierarchy were service people, grunts who took care of all the other stuff. I slotted teachers and clergy into this category. What did they do but pass on info and engage in meaningless ritual? You could read books or pray on your own, if need be.

I think this arrogant bias prevented me from taking full advantage of what my teachers had to offer. Once I understood, sometime during high school, how smart they really were, I became intimidated. Teachers suddenly seemed superhuman, possessing of mysterious talents, and I didn't know how to speak to them. I realize now that this misperception never quite went away; even though the rabbis at my synagogue share so much of themselves by allowing me into their world at the bima, I often feel it's not my place to share back. Which is kind of ridiculous, and is limiting the insight and knowledge I could gain from these associations. On this Shabbat Vayetze, as Jacob awakens from a dream of angels and ladders--"Ma norah ha makom hazeh, how awe-filled is this place; God was here but I knew it not"--I hope I can follow his example and truly see, use, and reciprocate the gifts of people and ideas that surround me.