Monday, December 31, 2007

584. Quiet, part 1

A week ago Sunday, I spent most of the day looking for silence.

My apartment is old, with thick walls, and actually very quiet; with the windows closed I might as well be in a crow-free field in the middle of Iowa. I wish I could be creative with music playing in the background, but always end up listening and not thinking of much else. So I put a comfy chair (which also serves as sleeping location #12 for my cat) in the bedroom just for sitting with a laptop and writing. The conditions are perfect.

I also spend my days working at the other end of my lovely apartment. Although silence is a great trigger for my design-related neurons, with that package also comes stress about bills, clients, and everything else associated with running a business. I have become adept at the art of floating on creative endorphins while swatting away the mosquito-like intrusive thoughts. But sometimes, when I sit down in the comfy chair, my brain confuses silence-inspired work stress with the calm oasis of writing, and my apartment begins to feel like a box with lead-lined walls that deflect any creativity having to do with the putting together of words. This was my problem a week ago Sunday, and so I set off to find a different flavor of quiet.

Starbucks can be a good escape. There used to be one a block away but, in the eternal dance of banks, Duane Reades and chain eateries, it morphed into a bank. Then a smaller version opened on my side of the street. But potential patrons stalk the block awaiting an open seat and, once possessed, camp out for months at a time. (Well, maybe just minutes. But it seems like forever.) The tension is unbearable. It helps to be pre-medicated if you want to remain calm enough to think clearly while in that Starbucks. I did find a seat, wonder of wonders, but got tired of listening to the man at the next table complain about his ex-boyfriend. So I left.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

583. Break over

My brain demanded a holiday break this past week. I tried to tie up year-end loose ends, but mostly vegetated on the couch in an attempt to recharge the many batteries of the creative parts of my life. I also debated joining this--Blog365, NaBloMo on steroids, one blog post a day for an entire year. If I do, some of those will be photos or quotes from those far more articulate than I, because I'll never have time or energy for so many words. But maybe those parenthetical ideas will inspire something else... I've tried to limit the subject matter of this blog to Judaism and chanting, with occasional forays into family and life in New York, but perhaps it's time to widen the net. Or not. As of January 29 I will have been here for three years!--who could have imagined.

On Friday evening I co-led the Contemplative Shabbat service at my synagogue, which injected more energy into my lazy spirit than hours upon hours of L&O:CI (my latest guilty pleasure) ever could. One day only laypeople will lead this service, but not quite yet; I'm grateful to have shared the honor with a rabbi, which left me calm enough to meditate a bit myself. We chose "light" as our theme for these dark, waning days of the year, and spoke about references from the liturgy. I chose the first and last lines of Psalm 97:

God reigns; let the earth rejoice ...
Clouds and darkness surround You
Righteousness and justice are the foundations of Your throne
Light is sown for the righteous ...
Rejoice in God, and give thanks to God's holy name.

I found a commentary in the Metsuda Siddur suggesting that the role of clouds here was to obscure evil and wickedness and allow the light of God's goodness to shine through. So darkness is necessary to help reveal light--which is always waiting for us, as the last lines say, even when it seems the clouds will never part. The days will always get longer and brighter. I also spoke about the first blessing before the Shema:

You roll away the light from before the darkness and the darkness from before the light ...
Blessed are You, God, who brings on the evenings.

Although about creation, this is a specific blessing for evening--a time when light disappears and everything is fuzzy and unclear. Evening is when the Jewish day traditionally begins, when we start our daily lives anew; maybe the message is that we shouldn't be "blinded by the light." Perhaps we're better off looking for truth and honesty when it's a little hidden and we must search harder for the true sparks in the darkness.

Although I was thrilled to speak and sing in front of everyone, the best part of the service was the Amidah. Two dozen of us spread throughout the dark, cavernous, completely silent stone sanctuary, alone yet also accompanied. I stood near an alcove by the door, and halfway through heard a little squeak--and then another, and another. It was a bird who had taken residence under the archway long before I arrived, and I think she was praying along.


p.s.: Yikes, I did it.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

582. Electric

This Friday's Kabbalat Shabbat service was as electric as any I have experienced as a member of the congregation. I felt the energy of being up front, of leading, while sitting with everyone else, as if a spark ignited with the rabbis and cantor and spread outwards into the brush of bodies. I kept my eyes closed for most of the service but could almost see the illumination of our sounds through my eyelids. I think, after a week of mourning, we all made an unspoken, unanimous decision to re-join our souls to the world--and what a wedding it was, joy meeting sadness and whirling her away.

If you mix enough emotions together and simmer over music, they will eventually boil like a frenetic stew. Sometimes I think I could live on this nourishment alone: the vitamins of Shabbat, better than any earthly feast.

Monday, December 17, 2007

581. Equal opportunity, part 1

I met C. on my first day of kindergarten, and we remained best friends through sixth grade. From first grade on she went to St. Mary's and I stayed at P.S. 24, but we still got together at least once a week for ballet class, riding our bikes to Kissena Park so we could carve our names on the side of a tree or, on one memorable occasion (and to the great wrath of our parents), create a magic potion by mixing together all the cleaning supplies in her basement. We were very different--she wore frilly dresses, I liked "Star Trek"--but we bonded just the same. I was especially proud to know C. because my mother's best friend since childhood was also Catholic, and I wanted to be just like my mother. There were few Jews where she grew up and she spoke often of my Aunt Lil's courage, which made no sense: why would anyone be afraid of my mother? They had Jesus and we didn't, big deal. We went to Aunt Lil's every Thanksgiving and stayed late to help decorate the Christmas tree. C. drank milk with her bologna sandwiches, but her mother made sure to serve me ginger ale instead. I slept over her house on the many occasions my parents had to go to funerals.

C. and I lost touch in junior high for reasons having nothing to do with religion (she became cool and boy-crazy, I remained a geek). But by then I had learned I wasn't supposed to walk into churches whenever I felt like it, as I did for C.'s first Communion, and that the only real kind of Jew was Orthodox. And the only religion that counted was Judaism. I also understood that my mother did not subscribe to these theories, but my father, whose politics began and ended with the question "Is it good for the Jews?", did. We cultivated a don't ask, don't tell kind of relationship (possible because I only saw him every other weekend), never acknowledging that I agreed with my mother, nor that my choir performed at St. Luke's. I think he suspected, but chose to believe otherwise.

Yes, I felt guilty for misleading my dad, as well as for wishing, deep down, that he was right. The very model of modern open-mindedness, I secretly hoped we indeed were the best. But I watched Israel hating and fighting, saw the contradictions and hypocrisy around faith in my community and family, and eventually declared all religious people to be nuts, which was easier than trying to sort out my feelings. In a strange way, I guess I returned to the equal-opportunity interfaith convictions of my childhood.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

580. May her memory be for a blessing

So I have been here but not here for the past few days. On Thursday a beloved member of my community died very suddenly, a woman I didn't know well but who became a part of my life from the very first time we met. How can someone be present even when you don’t see her, actions and soul rarely interacting with your own yet reverberating loudly just the same? H. gave freely of her home, time, prayers, laughter and opinions, all with a New Yorker’s edge and a mother’s endless compassion. There are many, many wonderful people around who help create a better world. Some make sure you know it, which is fine—goodness trumps ego. Others hide in humility, and I wonder how much more they could achieve if only they would let themselves shine. I think both ends of the spectrum are fueled by insecurity about one’s place in the world. A rare few, like H., are able to struggle and achieve with faith and confidence that the seeds of their rewards are in the actions themselves. If you want love, seek it out, return the favor without any fuss and then enjoy, fully and completely, the family and friends who embrace you back with the force of a tidal wave. Over 500 people attended her funeral, and each of us had a personal connection—and, I suspect, were visited by H. in our dreams that night just as I was, awakened every few hours by the shock of emptiness. We were not close friends; I can offer only the briefest of anecdotes. But the joy and tears she let us share, the deeds of goodness, charity, endless curiosity and compassion she modeled make me want to be just like H. when I grow up. May her memory be for a blessing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

579. The reversing vav

This was not entirely news to me. At the final class of a Hebrew tutorial I took three years ago, the teacher casually mentioned that some words switch tenses when you add a letter "vav" (which also means "and") at their very beginnings. So a past tense verb miraculously becomes future, and vice-versa. (Modern Hebrew has no such weirdness.) Since I hadn't yet learned any tense beyond the past, I filed it away for future (no pun intended) reference. I subsequently noticed a preponderance of initial vavs in my Torah portions, and wondered if they were this weird thing. Translations shed little light on the phenomenon.

But last night at my wonderful and very serious Biblical Hebrew grammar class, my head practically exploded when the teacher explained that the majority of verbs in the Bible employ reversing vavs. And sometimes the initial vav also means "and" in addition to its role as time-shifter--or it doesn't. We can never know for certain. So a sentence that seems to say

"She sat and walked and stood."

might really mean

"She sat, will walk, and will stand."


"She will sit, and walked and stood."

The teacher offered one theory about this grammatical strangeness: In pre-Biblical times and often for reasons of poetic euphony, verb tenses were fluid. But the word "and" (the letter vav) always appeared in a sequence, and in a sequence there was a clear beginning and ending. Eventually the vav itself came to to signify a change of time in either direction. (Apologies to scholars. I am simplifying drastically and probably incorrectly. My brain was swimming in a sea of incredulity last night as this was explained at rapid pace.)

All I could think during class was that clever and sneaky God, by giving a us Torah written in Hebrew and full of vavs, made quite sure we would never stop trying to interpret it.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

578. Simhat Torah 5768, part 7

(Continued from here.)

A few weeks earlier I mentioned in an email to the cantor that I had learned today's portion months ago. I'm impressed, he replied. Don't be, I answered; I'm afraid I'll faint from nerves, so want to make sure I know it in my sleep.

"If you pass out," he wrote back, "we'll wake you up. :-)" (A joke, but not really.)

I begin to read, and for the first time today am certain I will remain conscious throughout the creation of the universe.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

577. Space aliens

I had the strangest dream the other night. I was at Columbus Circle and decided to walk up Central Park West--only to discover that the park, starting at about 62nd Street, was covered with plastic! A big bubble extended from the ground on the west side of the sidewalk all the way to the sky, and disappeared over a huge, invisible dome. I somehow knew it didn't end on the east side, but stopped over the Reservoir. And that it went up for miles and miles.

Why hadn't I read about this strange construction? I stopped a cop who was busy shooing people away from the trucks that lined the road, some of which spewed water from huge hoses over passing pedestrians. It was a secret, he explained. The media wasn't allowed to cover it--but didn't you notice we were building this all summer long?

I didn't. What's it for? I asked. We're trying to communicate with aliens, said the cop. We're sending a message to whomever is out there.

I sighed with relief, because my first thought was that were were fighting off some strange visitors--and I wanted Will Smith, but he was nowhere in sight. This is pretty cool, I thought. There's some hope for our government yet.

I continued up Central Park West amidst the crowds and chaos, and noticed a group of children sitting in the middle of the street. I walked over to investigate--they looked like they were playing with marbles--and saw them staring at a bunch of skinny little black frogs who hopped back and forth on the sidewalk. I had never seen such creatures before; they looked like cartoons come to life. "They're the aliens," explained one of the children, smiling. "No one recognized them. They got our message. They're really nice."

I stood in the street with the children and watched. And then I woke up and thought about this dream, and how we often fail to notice the most marvelous things under our very own eyes.

Friday, December 07, 2007

576. Rededication

This is the Shabbat of rededication and dreams--Hanukkah and Parashat Miketz, in which Joseph imagines cows, ears of grain, and good and bad fortune for the land of Egypt. At services this evening the rabbi asked us to think of a dream that didn't arrive randomly in the night--one we created willingly and purposefully, of the sort that can't predict but will determine the future just the same. Close your eyes, he suggested, and rededicate that dream, re-light its candle. Maybe it got lost in the darkness. Bring it back to the light.

I had too many of these to fit in a minute, so picked one: May anything broken within me be made whole. Wishing everyone who reads this a Shabbat Shalom--a day of rest, completeness, and peace.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

575. Silence, sleep and jazz*

I had a hard time emptying my mind during the Contemplative Shabbat service last Friday, so thought about silence instead.

I doubt that anyone is afraid of music, but many recoil from silence and meditation. Most couch it in different terms: I have no time to sit around; I don't like someone telling me what to think when I'm supposed to be quiet; I relax just fine, thank you, when I ski/read/play the tuba, etc.; it's all a bunch of New Age nonsense. There is some truth to all these reasons, but I think they're often excuses to avoid confronting the truth behind the noise of our lives.

Silence is the glue that holds together our ideas, the space between all we do. Silence, like the white of the page, is louder than everything around it. In silence is the expectation and yearning that fuels each act--the origin, in many ways, of the drama of our lives. And its evenness and lack of peaks and valleys also creates a rational side to our irrational desires, allowing us to glimpse the alternative.

Silence is not rest; we sit quietly, yet our minds still move at a thousand miles a minute. Only sleep is rest, when we can't fully remember what's happening behind the curtain. Silence is more like jazz, a transcendent state of creativity that requires structure. It has rules, even though we make it up as we go along. Like jazz, each experience of meditation is different from the one before: sometimes we observe our passing thoughts as if from far away, but during others we practically beat them down so they won't strangle us. After we leave the quiet room, in all cases, we have seen and grown something not present before we entered.

I am also saddened by silence, because it reminds me that I'm getting older. Once upon a time I could concentrate amidst of all kinds of noise. I had less of my own inner chaos to compete with the outer; now I hear cacophony whenever the two meet. Maybe more silence will lead me to a simpler life, which will allow me to need less silence.


*I got the idea for this post during services, but couldn't write it down because it was Shabbat and I was in a house of worship. So I kept repeating these three words to myself in order to remember.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

574. City of Light

Walking down Broadway the other evening, I saw a long row of trees on the median whose trunks were wound top to bottom with white lights--just the trunks, not the branches.

"How cool," I thought. "A menorah!"

Then I noticed other randomly situated half-wound trees, and some whose tops alone were bedecked--and realized that the City of New York was a little haphazard in its holiday tree lighting plan. Hanukkah had nothing to do with it. But just for a minute, it was nice to imagine a more elegant and creative commemoration of the Festival of Lights than the 70-foot Chabad menorah on 5th and 59th.

Happy Hanukkah!--may everyone's evenings and days be equally free of darkness throughout the coming week.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

573. Gloria Pizza

It’s snowing, finally. November was barely autumnal—or maybe this is our globally-warmed weather from now on. All of a sudden it’s 20 degrees out and no one’s prepared (except for my building super, who’s been sending rain forest-quality heat through our radiators since October).

One day last week the light outside was the strangest mixture of gold and silver, as if the sky couldn’t decide what it wanted to reflect. That kind of open, fresh winter morning reminds me how much I miss my parents at this time of year, when everything is cold and crisp and love and warmth stand out even more than usual. The December holiday season was much more important when I was a kid than Rosh Hashanah, which never really felt like a beginning. My mother and I would spend hours wandering through the bustle of Gertz and Alexander’s on Main Street (which looks nothing today like it did when I was 8), not buying much (I’d get a present or two—we weren’t big on that part of the ritual), and then catch the bus back home in front of Gloria Pizza. We never went in, though, because Jews didn’t eat pizza. (It had much less to do with kashrut than custom. Our food was deli. Burger King was also OK, although not McDonald's. End of story.) I discovered the wrongness of this belief later on, and went into Gloria’s occasionally when I was older—who knew it would gain near-cult status—but was a bigger fan of Barone across the street, which incredibly still stands. Barone was next to the tacky jewelry store and Woolworth’s on one side and the LIRR elevated tracks on the other, under which I once saw the tinted window of a passing black limo roll open, a hand holding an overstuffed envelope emerge, and a man in a dark suit walk by and grab the envelope without missing a beat. Thereafter I was sure Barone had interesting reasons for changing its name from “Frank and Enzo,” and felt oddly safe at its under-lit back tables.

On Main St. in December, especially when it snowed and all Queens seemed to have mufflers over its ears, the pent-up energy of the past year spilled out over store counters and through Muzak speakers and made me feel like everything could be new, even as nothing would ever change.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

572. Pillow-top and Rashi

I'm laying on my new mattress. It is heavenly. I feel like a typical American consumer of unnecessary luxury items while people on the other side of the world are starving, but I still want to stay in bed forever.

The mattress did not arrive on Friday. The delivery guys showed up with the wrong size; I called the mattress co. and yelled; they apologized profusely. I felt guilty for revealing my rude New Yorker DNA. Then they offered to send me the correct, smaller size--for the same price as the larger. I knew this made no sense but really wanted the mattress NOW, like a three-year-old stomping her foot, and almost said yes. But my common sense (or perhaps echoes of the same voices that told me I should sleep on a rock) eventually prevailed. I cancelled the order.

Five minutes minutes later the mattress co. called back and offered to deliver the correct size at a large discount. I don't understand this business model, but I don't mind it, either.

Because the Torah always seems to know what's happening in my life, last night at a contemplative Shabbat service we studied a section of this week's parasha, Vayeshev:

And when his brothers saw that it was he their father loved more than all his brothers, they hated him and they could not speak to him peacefully.
--Genesis 37:4

Rashi's commentary on the line:

From what is stated to their discredit, we may learn something to their credit: they did not say one thing with their mouth and think differently in their heart.
--Genesis Rabbah 84:9

We formed hevruta to explore our reactions to the pasuk and commentary. A contemplative hevruta is not a conversation; rather, each person speaks uninterrupted for a few minutes while the other listens with complete attention. Rarely in life do we get to be heard fully, or have the opportunity to listen fully. It is a meditative and freeing experience no matter which side of the conversation you're on.

I found myself talking about the mattress, which had refused to retreat from the front of my mind even after all those minutes of silence. I commended the honesty of Joseph's brothers; yes, the whole experience was messy and mean, but everything turned out OK. (Well, except for Pharaoh and the 40-year-exile business. But that wasn't Joseph's brothers' fault.) I told my somewhat bewildered hevruta partner how I, too, spoke my mind that very afternoon, felt bad about yelling into the phone, but also got what I wanted and deserved. In the end losing my temper stopped me from getting screwed.

I left services feeling as if I had besmirched Torah by comparing its wisdom to my dealings with a mattress company, but also determined to never be afraid of acting upon what was in my heart. (Within reason--I draw the line at throwing a loved one into a pit). Also that Rashi, and Whomever wrote down those Joseph stories in the first place, were pretty smart guys.

Friday, November 30, 2007

571. Hurrah!

It got a little more difficult this final week, but I did it--a post each day for all of November. Whew. I didn't finish everything I wanted to say, but there are many, many non-NaBloPoMo months ahead. More posts to follow--perhaps not EVERY day, but close. Please stay tuned, and Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

570. Pillow-top

This post is about neither singing nor Judaism--although you could say that life is always about connecting to Something Greater, which I find within the context of Judaism. Which means everything I write is, by default, on topic. Today I bought a new mattress, to be delivered tomorrow. I can't really afford it, but months of waking up with backaches finally convinced me to take the plunge. One reason I waited to so long is that I can generally fall asleep anywhere--on a couch, sitting up in a chair, whatever. I like to sleep and seem to have a talent for it, although don't get nearly enough practice. That I was able to remain unconscious for many hours at a stretch on my current rocky plain of springs and cotton helped me delay this purchase for many years. Then last week a friend spoke in ecstasy about her new bed, and I was jealous--and realized Something Greater was giving me a hint.

As a child I was taught, rather vehemently, that the purpose of a mattress was to offer support, end of story. Mushy beds were coveted by mushy, spineless people. It didn't help that my college roommate had a board under her mattress (the closest she could come to the sensation of a sleeping bag in the woods, her preferred habitat), and my post-college boyfriend opted for the Marine-quality brand. I would never admit to them, or anyone else, that I yearned to sink nightly into a sea of fluff. I've purchased two prior mattresses in my lifetime, and in both cases stood in the store struggling with the words of past and present loved ones in one ear ("You're strong! You don't need pillow-top!") and the Heavenly Messenger of Comfort in the other ("You know you want it!"). I remained stoic.

But now I understand that I'm honoring God with this new mattress. God wants us to sleep--we're ordered to rest on Shabbat, and during the week must have energy to work. So sleep is surely a mitzvah that keeps us alive and able to fulfill God's commandments. And we're instructed to perform mitzvot with a measure of elegance and beauty (hiddur mitzvah)--I could indeed sleep on the floor, but this new mattress will raise the experience to a level of art I know God will appreciate.

Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Tomorrow night, accompanied by the Angel of Hedonism, I will experience my very first pillow-top Shabbat.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

568. With feathers

Some days a person just doesn't feel like writing. But NaBloPoMo continues until Friday, so here I am. This month has been a great exercise for me, proof that I always have something to say even when I'm sure I don't.

Tonight the one word that comes to mind is "hope":

Israelis, Palestinians agree on framework for peace talks

Monday, November 26, 2007

567. The right time

I did it--two hours of Hebrew homework before I started the work day. And I also managed to get to the gym. I'm exhausted, but my brain feels just a little more full than yesterday.

Much of what I'm learning in this class is familiar, things I sort of halfway know by osmosis or learned a few years ago during a tutorial. (We met in a diner under the elevated subway tracks, an excellent place to study Torah.) Some skills I can pick up on my own, like the design software I use in my work life; not so with language, which require drills, repetition, and a great teacher in order to stick in my head. Every class and page in the textbook has been an aha! moment, and the Torah portion I'm now learning is starting to make sense as intuitive grammar rather than discrete words all strung together. I don't know why I didn't take this class years ago. For whatever reason, I wasn't ready.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

566. A person-flower

Whenever I feel old, I remember the things that haven't changed since I was a callow youth--in particular, my sometimes poor time-management skills. I spent the day working, and will get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow to finish the Hebrew homework I could have done two weeks ago, but did not. (I haven't yet written about this class, which is fantastic, challenging and completely different than last year's fun but kind of boring and way too easy one.)

So I will grab a few hours' sleep and let Abraham Joshua Heschel finish today's post:

My Seal
Why am I not a flower,
a person-flower?

Bless me, my spirit
with tenderness instead of might!

To own smiles instead of words,
and always being light to the world.

To be able to give love, good fortune
with my hair, like orchids.

And may my way through rooms be
like finger-touches on piano keys.

Tenderness, you ineffable name of God,
be my image of God!

--from The Ineffable Name of God: Man

Saturday, November 24, 2007

565. Coming soon

If not for the fact that night is now falling during the afternoon, I would refuse to believe December is next week. But today's glass-blue sky, and patterns on shoulders and tallitot of white sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows of the church where we have services, has convinced me otherwise. The end of autumn is coming. As is, um, how do you spell that again?

Time to scour the neighborhood for non-drip candles (I waited too long last year and spent hours scraping wax off my menorah as a result).

Friday, November 23, 2007

564. Energy, part 4

(Continued from here.)

Another moment from last Friday's service:

We always sing a soft niggun at the end of the silent Amidah to ease us away from personal reverie and back into the consciousness of the group. The rabbis lead the tune, and I always marvel at how it seems plucked from thin air (I'm pretty sure they don't choose in advance). This evening I finish the prayer, walk back to the bima, and listen for the rabbi. I don't recognize his melody at first, but then hear the refrain and the words he doesn't sing:

Oifn pripitchik, brente fayerel... (On the little hearth, a fire is burning and the school room is so warm, and the rabbi teaches small children the aleph beys [ABCs]. Pay attention children, think, you dear ones, on what you are learning here...)

We've used this tune before, although not for quite awhile. Everyone hums along, but I'm speechless for a few seconds. Tomorrow is my father's yahrzeit, and he sang this to me all the time when I was a very little kid--my mother, too. I never understood the words; my parents made a point of not teaching me Yiddish, whether because they wanted to be able speak to each other in private or believed I had no need for it as modern American, I'll never know. I always had a sense that they were embarrassed to know the language at all, as if it were horribly archaic and irrelevant. But they did use it, and those sounds always remind me of a simple and safe part of my life. And make me miss what's gone, but how can I be sad this evening as I stand surrounded by hearts warmer than any fireplace? I hear "Oifn pripitchek" and imagine my father humming along from somewhere, a little off-key, as always, proud and smiling and glad to be remembered.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

563. Grateful once again

I've posted these words before, but can't hear them enough:

"To pray is to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. Who is worthy to be present at the constant unfolding of time? Amidst the meditation of mountains, the humility of flowers--wiser than all alphabets--clouds that die constantly for the sake of God's glory, we are hating, hunting, hurting. Suddenly we feel ashamed of our clashes and complaints in the face of the tacit glory in nature. 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."
--Abraham Joshua Heschel

I attended the interfaith service again this year, a most gentle hour and a half. There were prayers and readings from scripture (including a riveting telling of the Passover story by a minister who sounded unlike anyone I've ever heard around the seder table), but our common language was music: a Japanese song on koto; a gospel choir; a bell accompanying Buddhist meditation as we envisioned all beings as happy, well and peaceful; Native American chant; a Methodist hymn; Violetta Parra's "Gracias A La Vida"; Aaron Copland's "At the River"; Hineh ma tov ("Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in harmony").

Then I went to dinner with friends, the wonderful sounds still reverberating in my mind and mixing with the taste of pita and olive oil. Tonight, another tradition: Thanksgiving dinner with more great friends and my dearest relative at a new restaurant (she gets to pick each year, as she's a foodie). How grateful I am to spend this day with family I love (vs. family I'm obliged to endure while stuffing my face with turkey as football blares in the background). I am also grateful to have no need or desire to run to Sears at 4AM on this lovely Black Friday. May we all have the luxury of sitting home today and doing nothing except writing in our blogs!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

562. Energy, part 3

(Continued from here.)

We reach the end of Mizmor LeDavid and the rabbi slows down; I follow suit. But the musicians don't agree; their pace remains steady and they get a little louder, a bit more forceful. Each note sounds more purposeful then the one before. I think I know what they're about to do: create a deliberate, measured pace, and then speed up again. I wait--just a few seconds, but the tension is unbearable--and am ready to move faster at a second's notice and spin into the frenzy for which they're surely preparing. I feel giddy and complicit in this shaping of communal mood, certain that no one but those of us up front can guess the thrilling secret about to be released. And impatient--start now, you back there with the drum! I implore telepathically. Don't torture them! Don't make them wait any longer!

Then I notice the rabbi's hand motioning below the bima so only myself and the musicians can see: lower, lower. He knows what's happening, of course, probably sensed it even before any of us had a clue. It's not time yet; just a few more minutes and everyone will be done climbing and be ready to jump. For an instant I feel like I've been slapped in the face, and stop singing. The musicians slow down immediately and guiltily, I imagine. How could we have misjudged, and why can't I go there now? But then I see everyone looking up and waiting to hear what the rabbi has to say, and my self-recrimination disappears as quickly as it arrived. Faces and shoulders relax as calm and anticipation wash over us like cool rain. He was right--just a few more minutes.


After services, there's a community dinner and guest speaker. I've missed the first half, the eating part, since the dinner began after the early service. I've asked a friend to save me some food and there it is, heaped on a plate. I arrive just as everyone is singing zemirot, and devour potato kugel while surrounded on all sides by voices and music. I suddenly remember a time, years before, when I fell asleep on a sofa during a break in the middle of the day at an a cappella workshop, and opened my eyes to see a group of faces right above me singing Monteverdi's madrigal "Zefiro torna" ("Return, O Zephyr, and with gentle motion/Make pleasant the air and scatter the grasses in waves"). They were the zephyrs come to life, and tonight all my friends at the dinner are the Shekhina, the Shabbat bride, preparing my table and teaching me to rest.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

561. Energy, part 2

(Continued from here.)

The rabbi is standing next to me and so I can't actually see him, but keep expecting big, multicolored, concentric waves of his energy, like round, fuzzy neon tubes, to bump me on the shoulder or at least appear in my peripheral vision. Joy explodes from his hands as they pound on the bima, and I'm infected as well--I keep forgetting where I am, and every few moments notice I'm banging on the table with my palm as I sing, and stop self-consciously. I'm really not trying to imitate him. But then I start again. I feel like two people, one so happy I can barely breathe and another hyper-vigilant, aware of the rabbi's every twitch and trying to stay one beat ahead of the musicians so I don't lose my place.

(Continued here.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

560. Energy, part 1

A moment from this past Friday evening:

We reach Mizmor LeDavid, the prayer that comes right before Lekha Dodi, which is the official opening prayer, as it were, of Shabbat. We dance to Lekha Dodi at my synagogue, always to one of many different fast, rousing tunes. Mizmor LeDavid can be fast, too, but when the energy level seems low, the rabbis sing it at a slower, more contemplative pace.

This night the warm-up of psalms hasn't yet brought us anywhere near Shabbat-appropriate ecstasy, so Mizmor LeDavid is mellow and relaxed. As an experiment, the set-up of the Sanctuary has changed: service leaders (tonight, myself and a rabbi) stand at a bima, with the musicians to our right and behind. I can tell that the congregation is a little unsettled by this, as am I; for the past two years, rabbis and kahal alike sat together in a big semi-circle. But the musicians had trouble hearing one another, so we're going back to the old way for while. Although I miss the electricity of being enveloped by the ensemble, standing in front reminds me of the High Holy Days. I am immediately more confident (and it's easier to breathe, too.)

(Continued here.)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

559. Egg salad

One day soon I will again have time and energy to write something substantial, but I don't think it's today.

The reason why is a good one, though--I spent all afternoon talking about social action with other members of my synagogue as part of a community-based organizing initiative. The first step is figuring out what issues move us and spur us to action (and the half of a step after that is eating lots of bagels and egg salad, which we also did very well).

I rounded off the evening with continued email angst, but I think it's solved now. The coming week will bring lots of work and even more eating (and, unless I want to hate myself forever, a few trips to the gym). And more thinking and writing about the wonderful Shabbat evening that just passed.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

558. Scintillating

Instead of writing or otherwise having fun, I spent a lovely evening after Shabbat ended migrating my Eudora email box to Apple Mail. This was a less than scintillating activity having nothing to do with chanting Torah that took many hours instead of the few minutes I had planned, but it's done. I hope to have a little more time tomorrow to think of loftier things, like singing and laundry.

Friday, November 16, 2007

557. More to come...

I helped lead Shabbat services again last night, first time since March. So much fun! More to come tomorrow, and continue having a Shabbat Shalom, everyone.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

556. Angels

If not for NaBloPoMo, this would be one of those days when I get into bed, remember I didn't write in this blog, feel guilty, feel guiltier about the deadline I will surely miss because I'm too old for all-nighters and decide to go to sleep instead, conclude that sleep trumps guilt, and then have nice dreams. Instead I will experience marginally less guilt because I am, at least, writing. I spent a few hours this afternoon after a trip to the ophthalmologist walking around Manhattan with dilated pupils. Herald Square a week before Thanksgiving is always otherworldly, but at dusk, with rain changing illuminated signs and traffic lights into glowing, crystalline orbs that are further magnified by my drugged eyes--I felt like I was walking among the angels. Addled angels, but mysterious creatures nevertheless. I dodged them left and right, and somehow made it into the subway and back uptown. Then I sat in an empty diner for an hour to recover. As pharmaceutically enhanced adventures go, this one was interesting and not at all scary.

Tomorrow evening I'm helping to lead Shabbat services (it's been awhile), and then chanting Torah the following morning. Those experiences now seem more real to me than the frenzy of Herald Square, one of the most familiar places I know; my mother and I went to Macy's every week or so for years when I was a kid. Those angels in the traffic lights have been doing their jobs.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

555. Words

"Meditation is like being at your own funeral, except you're not dead," said the teacher at tonight's contemplative practice class.

It was quite a statement, and people gasped. What he meant was that if we could be present at own eulogies, we would hear the most profound, glorious, tragic moments of our lives summed up in anecdote form: "The relationship was difficult." "She loved her children more than the world." "They lived for each other." How many tears fell for each of those words?

We strive, during meditation, to make the millions of words that describe our complicated lives fall away and leave in their wake a simpler awareness of being. In silence we watch as they turn into anecdotes that float past with each breath, and then disappear until the moment we open our eyes. (We hope they will be slower and calmer upon their return.) Contemplative practice can teach us that the novels of our lives are really just anecdotes, and that the extraneous bulk of words and worries we create all day long stands in the way of noticing what's really important: breath, nature, peace.

I hope, one day in this lifetime, to be able to do this rather than just write about it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

554. Motion

My choral conductors and vocal coaches over the years all agreed on one piece of wisdom: don't move. I had a great deal of trouble standing still when I sang; in my college choir I won the "Most Animated" award. But as I joined smaller and smaller groups, I learned that every sway back and forth was energy lost, potential power you couldn't to apply to the sound. And motion is distracting to the audience, as well--an a cappella group shouldn't look like tall grass on a windy day.

I learned to stand still. Then I came to my synagogue, and stood among the congregation during prayer--and kept hearing the ghosts of my teachers: "Don't move!" But everyone else was swaying and, anyway, no one was listening to me. My sounds were private; this wasn't a performance.

But it wasn't easy to follow the orders of the voices in my head, because the entire congregation seemed to move in unison with one another's breath. There was no violent shuckling (like the stories of ancient rabbis lurching with such intensity that they ended upon the other side of the room), but rather a gentle wave across the rows. Eventually I started swaying, too, just a little bit. It felt subversive but good, and the rhythm of motion was like an instrument accompanying my prayer.

During services this past Shemini Atzeret, I found myself moving differently than usual, front to back instead of side to side. Suddenly I had a sensation of déjà vu: I knew this dance. I closed my eyes and saw sunlight streaming into my parents' bedroom window, and my father's silhouette as he wound his arms with tefillin. And then he swayed, back and forth, back and forth, just as I did this day while early morning light poured onto my tallit-wrapped shoulders.

Monday, November 12, 2007

553. Even better than carbonated brisket?

Just in time for the holidays (cross-posted from a few other sites, and I must do my part to spread the word):

"Seattle soda-maker promises ham flavor will be kosher"
The Associated Press

SEATTLE — It's rare to find kosher ham. Rarer still to find it carbonated and bottled.

Jones Soda Co., the Seattle-based purveyor of offbeat fizzy water, said Friday that it was shelving its traditional seasonal flavors of turkey and gravy this year to produce limited-edition theme packs for Christmas and Hanukkah...

...The Christmas pack will feature such flavors as Sugar Plum, Christmas Tree, Egg Nog and Christmas Ham. The Hanukkah pack will have Jelly Doughnut, Apple Sauce, Chocolate Coins and Latkes sodas.

"As always, both packs are kosher and contain zero caffeine," a Jones news release noted. (More...)

hmm, I've always wondered what ham tastes like...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

552. Simhat Torah 5768, part 6

(Continued from here.)

Hagbah! What was I thinking? I completely forgot to mention the awesome moment, right before I walked up to the bima, when the Torah was lifted and, in one seamless, gymnastic motion, flipped from end to beginning so we could start the unbroken story once again from the same scroll.

Hagbah on Simhat Torah usually gives me chills. This year, not so much; my heart was already skipping beats in anticipation of the reading to come.


From behind the sefer Torah I see my friends and community crowding around the bima, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the words that look back up at me. Yesterday after Shemini Atzeret morning services, I had the rare opportunity to practice from this very same scroll. I speed-chanted self-consciously as everyone milled around and pretended not to listen, and the gabbai followed along from a pocket-sized humash with print so minuscule I wondered if he really did have it all memorized, and never needed to look. The rabbi came by for a minute and leaned over and whispered, "Beautiful!" Whew, sighed the irrational part of my brain; at least I know I learned the right section.

I stumbled over one trop in the paragraph about the sixth day, despite all those months of practice. I had worried, from the moment I began to learn, that I might start to cry at the line about the creation of man betzelem Elohim, in God's image. I think I was a little afraid to learn that part as a result.

Now I look down at the scroll and see the same odd crease on the right side of the parchment that I noticed yesterday. I place the tiny index finger of my yad above the first word, and take a deep breath.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

551. Brisket and laughter

The tunes of prayers change often at my synagogue, unlike at 99% of synagogues in the universe. No decision of a ritual committee is involved, and most of the time I don't think the cantor himself knows what's happening until he sings something different. It keeps our spiritual muscles on their toes; I love that prayer can take on a new flavor when least expected. This morning I came to services happy from a warm, intimate evening with my havurah, but also exhausted and not feeling great, and trying to stave off uninvited voices in my head yelling about deadlines and bills. I felt a little better once we started praying and singing. But just a little.

Then we got to Psalm 136, Hodu l'Adonai ki tov, ki leolam hasdo, "Praise God, Who is good and Whose kindness is forever," also one of Passover's greatest hits. We usually sing this to a fast, upbeat tune also used a little later in the morning service for Az yashir Moshe, the Song of the Sea. But today the cantor chose a jauntier melody I hear once a year at a seder I've attended for over a decade, a hoarily monotonous version of the ritual conducted by dear friends that brings back memories of the Dry and Boring Years before I started going to my synagogue. I love it nevertheless, because I get to be with wonderful people and see the holiday through the eyes of their brilliant children. And, oh yes, eat incredible food.

And every year at my friends' seder, we're roused from our Maxwell House haggadah-induced lethargy the instant we begin Ki leolam hasdo. Along with its first notes this morning, I can practically smell brisket in the oven and hear the infectious laughter of my friends' daughters, which completely drowns out the crabby, kvetchy sounds stuck in my head from before.

Friday, November 09, 2007

550. Simhat Torah 5768, part 5

(Continued from here.)

And then the music slows, and we gather at the center of the Sanctuary once again. The gabbai, who has this part of the ritual down to a science, having stage-managed the past few dozen Simhat Torahs, signals my designated "huppah captain" to gather up the other huppah-bearers. Created by the whole congregation last year in honor of our new Torah, it's really, really, big. My friends are not; the gabbai gets a little frantic as he watches them struggle to hold the poles aloft. I'm reminded of my friend D'.s wedding, where actual tiny pieces of furniture hung from a lovingly handmade, unbearably heavy huppah, one corner of which was my responsibility. My arms began to hurt a few minutes into the service, and then my whole body. As I grew numb from the shoulders down, the rabbi gave me a scary look that said: hold on, you weak and horrible person. You drop the pole, you ruin your friends' lives forever. I continued to hold the pole, trying to avoid writhing visibly in agony.

I'm glad I have no idea, at this moment, that my friends are feeling equivalent pain. All I can hear is my rabbi calling me to the bima:

"Requesting permission from God exalted beyond all song and adoration, awesome beyond all praise and acclamation, the essence of wisdom and power, eternal Ruler, master of creation. And requesting permission of the Torah, whose royal splendor is enhanced with inner beauty...[more purple prose, etc. etc.]...The choice has been made, with all in unity; one we have chosen from this community, one who is true-hearted, deep in pursuit of kindness and justice, in paths of truth succeeding, one inspired to be first at the renewal of the Torah's reading. Since yours is the privilege to begin our fulfillment of this reading, setting a fine example, your portion is so goodly and your reward will be so ample."

Arise, arise, arise, [insert name], Kallat Bereshit Bera, to greet the great and awesome God with adoration, with the permission of this holy congregation, which will respond to your blessing with Amen in acclamation."

(From Siddur Sim Shalom)

I'm glad the words are in Hebrew, or else I would burst into tears as I did when I read them in the siddur the night before. My pulse pounds in my ears; my palms are ice cold; the only example I want to set is to remain conscious while reading. The rabbi sings out my name, and I walk up to the Torah scroll.

(Continued here.)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

549. Gezundheit

Interrupting the story (but still living up to my end of the NaBloPoMo bargain!) because I have to go to sleep early instead of write; I seem to be coming down with a cold, and can barely keep my eyes open. Hoping this one is short and sweet, since next weekend I'll be chanting Torah, helping lead services, AND hosting 15 people for lunch. Sneezing would be inconvenient. So I'll simply note that a few days ago, someone in India found this blog by typing:

whom to pray to get good marks in the exam

I hope you found the answer and an A+ (although I strongly doubt that I helped).

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

548. Simhat Torah 5768, part 4

(Continued from here.)

As his friends and family hold the huppah, the Hatan Torah, honored for leading morning minyan a few days week for well over a decade, approaches the bima as the rabbi sings a long, beautiful, and kind of over the top but exquisitely heartfelt traditional invitation:

"Requesting permission of God, mighty, awesome, and revered, and requesting permission of the Torah, our precious treasure which we celebrate, I lift up my voice in song with gratitude in praise of the One Who dwells in sublime light, Who has granted us life and sustained us with faith's purity, Who has allowed us to reach this day of rejoicing in the Torah which grants honor and splendor, life and security, which brings joy to the heart and light to the eyes, and happiness to us when we incorporate its values which we cherish. The Torah grants long days and strength to those who love and observe it, heeding its warnings absorbed in it with reverence and love without setting prior conditions. May it be the will of the Almighty to grant life, lovingkindness, and a crown of blessings in abundance to [insert name] who has been chosen for this reading of the Torah at its conclusion.

Arise, arise, arise, [insert name], Hatan Bereshit Bara, to greet the great and awesome God with adoration, with the permission of this holy congregation, which will respond to your blessing with Amen in acclamation."


The ecstatic chaos of a few minutes ago has given way way to a room full of people holding their breath in anticipation of that last word, "Yisrael," whose final lamed, added to the bet of "Bereshit," the very beginning of the Torah, spells "lev": heart. Which is what the other 79,845 words in between are really all about, when you get down to it. The Hatan Torah recites the first blessing and begins to read the concluding paragraph of the Torah. (One doesn't have to chant in order to receive an aliyah, but since he and I know how, we get to be doubly nervous this afternoon.) He finishes, and sings the final blessing--and the rabbis grab his hands and pull him into a dance beneath the huppah, a tight, dizzy circle that soon widens to invite us all. I fly around the bima a few times and then stand back and drown in ambient music and motion, clutching my yad for dear life.

(Continued here.)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

547. More thinking about silence

Tonight I went to another class, with a different teacher than before, about how to lead contemplative services. I didn't agree with all aspects of his approach, but he raised some good questions:

• Does the contemplative aspect of the service lead us into prayer, or is prayer a gateway to deeper exploration of the contemplative? If participants are less "traditional" and more comfortable with meditative practice than sitting through a service, the first focus might be better. But if they (like most people who go to Friday night services) are a little afraid of the whole sitting in silence thing, consider the second approach.

• Are you, the leader, prepared? Can you draw upon your own experiences of contemplative prayer while engaged in your chosen approach (chanting, sitting in silence, movement, etc.)? It's one thing to have a plan, and another to have real kavannah while enacting it. The teacher also suggested that the leader keep some emotional distance during the service to make sure her personal moments of prayer don't isolate her from an awareness of the needs of the congregation. This is where I disagree; the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. I've seen, close-up, how the shaliah tzibur can pray deeply while also remaining completely in charge, sharing energy with the people in the pews, trading focus and strength back and forth. Acting is never required, just honesty, nor must you wring yourself empty of emotion. It seems, from my very limited experience, that you can pace yourself during prayer, be very aware of the room and its inhabitants, and still have some energy left over for yourself. But it takes practice, and a congregation willing to be a partner rather than a passive audience. Because if you, the leader, have to do all the work--yes, you will burn out, or worse, learn to give less and less of yourself.

We reached no conclusions, but now I have even more to think about while preparing to help lead a contemplative havdalah service in a few days.

Monday, November 05, 2007

546. Simhat Torah 5768, part 3

(Continued from here.)

It's the seventh hakafah. I start to get nervous, and know I'm being ridiculous; I have never been in a safer place in all my life. The chaos of spinning and shmoozing begins to re-shape around a bima in the center of the room surrounded by rings of people sitting on the floor, little kids on laps, and teenagers in clumps toward the back, the rest of us jockeying for a small patch of carpet. I usually sit way up front, but today stand off to the side with the friends who will soon hold four poles of a huppah above my head. I want them all to be around me so I can feel their strength, and stop shaking.

The rabbi with the beautiful voice reads Vezot Haberacha, the last section of the Torah. He sings the name of each tribe with such reverence and love that I can picture Moshe standing there invoking the individual blessings, his right hand resting gently on the shoulder of the younger man. I wonder if Benjamin prayed for God to re-think God's plan while he was trying to listen to these final words of wisdom--how could he concentrate, knowing his beloved Moshe would soon be gone from this world?

Now we get to the last few lines and the Hatan Torah, the man receiving the honor of reading the end of the Torah, gathers behind the bima with his family and friends.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

545. Simhat Torah 5768, part 2

(Continued from here.)

The Simhat Torah morning service is my favorite of the year. Everyone is exhausted from last night's party, and it doesn't seem possible that we can be any happier today--but we are. The Sanctuary has been cleared of chairs, so we each grab our own from stacks lining the walls and create wavy, drunken-looking rows close to the Ark, as if we can't bear to be too far away from the scrolls after so many hours holding them close. We pray quietly and I feel joy start to fill the room like wine poured slowly into a goblet. The words we whisper and patterns of sunlight on the carpet are no different than any other early morning, but I can hear in the spaces between verses, see in our smiles hello and quick turning of pages the anticipation of flying around the room once again, hands clasped tighter than ever as we wait for the moment of beginning, of hearing new songs in old words.

This year I get to chant those words. Usually I show up in sneakers and a T-shirt appropriate to the dishevelment of dancing every single hakafah (circuit around the room), but today I wear a fancy skirt in honor of reading the beginning of Bereshit, and my feet hurt in new shoes. I don't mind. I dance like a child pushed on a swing: more! faster! higher! taking breaks to greet friends and run out to the street corner, the only quiet place on the entire block, in order to practice my portion for the ten thousandth time. I want the melody to become automatic, part of my breath, so I can see those birds and beasts and creeping things clearly in my mind's eye as I sing.

(Continued here.)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

544. The world to come

At havdalah this evening we studied chapter 8 of Heschel's The Sabbath:

"...And yet to Rabbi Hayim of Krasne the Sabbath contains more than a morsel of eternity. To him the Sabbath is the fountainhead (ma'yan) of eternity, the well from which heaven or the life in the world to come takes its source."

Explained our rabbi: We speak of the Sabbath taking on qualities of haolam habah, life to come, as if little pieces of the promise of ultimate wholeness could rain down upon us like heaven-sent crumbs. But what if the opposite were true, as the Hassidic master suggests--if the heart of perfection originated down here, within us all?

Can I imagine a life of Shabbatot--of rest, song, study, love, companionship--as the ultimate expression of being human, fuel to bring the world to a state of peace and equilibrium? I don't know. Last night, many hours before feasting on this teaching, I dreamt I arrived at services only to learn that Shabbat had already happened--on Sunday and Wednesday! Saturday would henceforth be the week's third day of rest. I was confused. What prayers do we say now? I asked the rabbi. He sat me down and began to explain; it was complicated. Why can't we go back to one Shabbat a week? I demanded. We've grown beyond that, he answered.

I woke up in a daze, wondering why my subconscious wanted to trade in a lovely 2BR prewar WBFP condo of the day of rest for a Trump Tower penthouse version. The Sabbath is palace--no need for satellite offices. If the spark of haolam habah really does begin down here, I have a feeling our collective hearts provide enough space for it to grow. If only we could learn to see its light within all those other crowded rooms.

Friday, November 02, 2007

543. At the well

Having recovered, more or less, from holiday craziness, I've signed up to read Torah again in a few weeks. I enjoyed the month-long break with nothing to study, was able to catch up on work and go to the gym a little more often, but woke up one day and realized... I had nothing to study! I had no reason to to get up a half hour earlier than usual and sing, or put off calling a client in order to run to the copy shop and Xerox a few pages of the tikkun, or wait for that moment of small triumph when, for the first time after endless repetition, I could to read a tricky verse from the left side of the page. I had no Shabbat mornings on the calendar when I knew my hands would break out into a cold sweat as I walked up to the bima but stop shaking once words in the scroll pulled me into their curves and angles, as if each stroke had reached out in an embrace.

So in a few weeks I'll be chanting a short section of Parashat Vayetze, when Jacob first meets Rachel:

Vayishak Ya'akov le-Rachel vayisa et-kolo vayevk.

Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud.

I break out into a big smile whenever I practice this line. I can see them standing by the well astonished at each other's beauty, as if the sun had blinded them by bursting, without warning, over the crest of a hill.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

542. NaBloPoMo, onchanting style

Before the clock strikes midnight, I'm announcing to the world that I've signed up for NaBloPoMo: one post a day for a month. If I finish... nothing happens, same as if I fail miserably. But it will be a little push to help me regain some of the discipline of regular writing that fell by the wayside because of the rest of of life, too much praying and singing, etc. Some days I may squeeze out just a line or two; I hope those instances are few. So please stay tuned for the rest of this story and maybe even this one, and who knows what else.

Friday, October 26, 2007

541. Links

After almost three (!!) years of hemming and hawing about this, I've finally added some links to this blog of a few other blogs I like to read (scroll down, under "Torah" in the left column). Some of these people have kindly linked to me, and I'd like to return the favor. But: on the one hand, I want people to read what I write, and links will help. On the other, I don't, which I really have to get over. I'm also more or less anonymous, and sometimes think that adding links will make me less so. If I feel irrationally paranoid over the next few weeks, I'll remove them. For now, please click on and enjoy these wonderful writers. And have a good and peaceful Shabbat, as well.

540. Better than chocolate

So I was clearly not in the best frame of mind yesterday. Then I went to a class, and learning proved a far better remedy than drugs or even chocolate.

We were a mix of seasoned meditators, new seekers, rabbis, cantors and everything in between, all of whom had expressed interest in learning to lead a contemplative Kabbalat Shabbat. We talked about what makes this kind of service different from all others: long spans of silence, focused intention on selected lines of the liturgy, repeated niggunim, intimacy, a sense of intense, private prayer while also feeling very exposed. In silence, there's nowhere to hide; you can't tune out your thoughts by raising your voice in ecstasy. You're acutely aware of the breath of the person next to you, with whom you bond deeply absent words or even a glance. That sense of nakedness, as well as connection to the congregation, is magnified even further when you're a service leader (as I can well attest). We reviewed the main elements that had to be included; there's great latitude in this kind of innovation, but also a line that can't be crossed lest the Jewishness of the ritual be lost. (To some, this line is crossed immediately with the very concept. This kind of service isn't for everyone, nor can it serve, for most congregations, as a substitute for traditional proceedings.)

We paired off in hevruta to devise our own service, one of the most exhilarating ten minutes I've had in quite awhile. Ours was based on the themes of music and sound, of listening to your own breath and how it blends with the others in the kahal. We included an extended chant on Psalm 92, "Mizmor Shir l'Yom haShabbat" and kiddush at the end consisting of slow, deliberate, and mindful sipping of a cup of wine.

We ended with a list of books to read, and a reminder that there was no substitute for learning the traditional origins of prayers as fuel for our interpretation. We'll have two more classes over the next couple of months with different rabbis. I left bursting with thanks at how fortunate I am to belong to a community where such chances can be taken--with the structure of the service as well as empowering laypeople to learn and create with each other in this way. I thought back to my first attempt last year at leading this service, when I had only the slightest clue, and realized I did pretty well. In a few weeks I'll get another chance when I lead havdalah; I have a long list of ideas to winnow down on the themes of sleep, light, winter, and... who know what else will come up once I crack a book or two. I may even suggest (very gently) the addition of a meditative element to services at my havurah.

This does indeed feel like a beginning, of--something.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

539. Silence

Once again this fall, I'm taking a meditation class at my synagogue. It's as challenging and enlightening as the last time; sometimes I sit in silence and watch my mind run and scream, and at others the quiet is a calm sea holding me afloat. Last night we did a writing meditation to answer the question, "How are you?" The answer, at that moment while scratching away with a pencil as I sat on the floor of a darkened Sanctuary, was very different than I might have given from in front of the computer. I don't want it to be. I guess that's a goal of meditation, to learn how to align the slow, calm, non-typing part of yourself with the on-deadline, overstuffed e-mailbox part.

I also want to be able to pray in silence with the same heart and kavannah as when I sing. Why, I wondered as soon as I formulated the question--isn't it enough to be able to reach wonderful places at all? Why be greedy and look for another route? But most of life is about waiting, working, planning, all places with ready silence hidden in corners, if only I remembered to look. I want to recognize more of the calm and holy in daily life, at times when singing and ecstasy isn't possible.

I didn't get there yesterday, but have two more opportunities this week. Tonight I'm going to a class about leading meditation services--the kind of service I led in May, but hopefully I'll have more of a clue in the future. And tomorrow is one of those services (led by a rabbi, whew). I'm hoping all this peace and silence will help me feel less unsettled, more inclined to write and embrace new ideas, less unsure about how to begin whatever it is I'm supposed to begin.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

538. Back to reality

In case anyone's wondering: I haven't disappeared.

I've had a hard time getting back to reality. The month of September was overwhelming, and ended with a big neon sign instructing me to start--something. But over the last two weeks I feel like I've resumed rather than begun afresh, and am not sure that's what the universe intended. (What, me second-guess fate? Never; but if life is a door, which it is, I think someone is knocking, almost too softly to hear.) Maybe I'm already doing whatever it is; I just need to give it a name. Perhaps it's about learning, or art, or relationships, or running in the park every morning. I don't know. On Shabbat the rabbi spoke about Abraham having the right tools to change the ordinary path of his life into an event of awareness. Until you understand how to see them, discoveries remain hidden in the bushes.

One of my weed-whackers or lawnmowers of the moment is a wonderful Biblical Hebrew class (suburban metaphors are not my strong suit, sorry); a symphony of practical arcana, we spent an hour and a half on the dagesh alone (the little dot inside letters). More about that, and the ending of my Simhat Torah story, when I'm more awake.

Friday, October 12, 2007

537. Parashat Noah

So much to say, so little time! In the meantime, the result of some of those hours I didn't spend writing for this blog: a d'var Torah. (There were some footnotes, which I've removed here. They attributed commentary quoted below to Nechama Lebowitz, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, and Ismar Schorsch.)

Every year as we read Parashat Noah I think about my grandfather, after whom I was named and whose yahrzeit is next week. Like Noah, he got off a boat and began afresh in a strange new place. Also like Noah, his goodness shone like a bright light in the darkness. I grew up with stories of his kindness, humor, and compassion; his strength, arriving in New York without a penny and building a successful business while raising a happy, healthy family; his artistry and humility as a master chef. At family gatherings even those relatives who couldn’t stand one another would join in conversation about how much they loved and missed Pops. Early on, I decided I wanted to be just like him when I grew up. My parents were wonderful, but also real, alive, and flawed. But my grandfather—the memory of someone I never met—was perfect.

Then, a few months ago, my cousin made a DVD of a 52-year-old home movie of his own pidyon ha-ben, the ceremony of symbolically redeeming a newborn son with pieces of silver. I clicked “play” and watched my parents dance, younger than I ever knew them, and saw a grey-haired man alone on a sofa in the background, frowning, staring at the floor. With shock I recognized Pops, just a few months before his sudden death from a stroke. I rewound the video again and again, wondering why he looked nothing like the man with the generous smile and twinkling eyes I knew so well from photos. Was he already sick? Why was no one sitting next to him? Was he angry, unhappy, in the middle of an argument? I had never before associated these words with my grandfather, never considered that he was human and so his goodness must have been tempered with other, less pleasant qualities. But in that instant, even as I was saddened to understand this truth, I felt more connected to his story than ever before.

My grandfather had imperfection in common with Noah, as well. Noah was “a righteous man, blameless in his age” (Genesis 6:9), read by many commentators as faint praise; if his generation had been less corrupt, he might not have seemed so great. And although Noah was strong and brave once the storm came and passed, he followed orders blindly in order to get there. He neither acted of his own free will, like Abraham setting off into the wilderness, nor seemed to have the guts to try and save anyone but himself while all other living beings perished. A modern commentator asks:

“Even in the last moments when Noah boards the ark, he is silent. What if instead, Noah, like Abraham, argued with God? Or asked God for mercy? Or refused to board the ark?”

He is vulnerable and insecure. His generation soon grows as evil as their ancestors’; did Noah, I wonder, ever conquer his past weakness and try to stop humanity from repeating its mistakes? Although God promises to keep God’s future wrath under control, I imagine Noah suffering from the ancient equivalent of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Still terrified by the outcome of his inaction, I hear him warning his community over and over that evil can lead to doom. No one listens; he gets frustrated; he drinks to escape his despair. Did Noah ever wish he had perished the first time around rather than witness an ungrateful, unrepentant humankind?

There are also gaps, for me, in the text of my grandfather’s life. I can only imagine what his struggles were, but the look on his face in that video told me there were many. Did he ever regret his decision to start from scratch in a strange country rather than endure predictable hardship in Probuzhna, Russia? On the surface, it seems as if neither man had a choice; you can’t say no to God, just as you can’t watch your family suffer in oppression and poverty. But they did choose—to live good, honorable lives during unbearable times rather than face sure, slow deaths.

The actions of both men merited God’s approval. My grandfather experienced God’s covenant daily through his freedom and safety in America. Noah saw it in the rainbow, which always seemed like a strange symbol of promise to me. Its awesome beauty is temporary, made of air. It has no definite beginning or end, whereas God’s other convenants—brit milah, the commandments etched in stone—are concrete and physical. Popular culture has made the rainbow into a symbol of perfection, but in reality it’s quite the opposite. It comes and goes with the shimmer of the atmosphere; we catch it only in enchanted glances.

But in other ways I think the rainbow is a perfect sign of God’s covenant in the face of our own flaws. The rainbow represents what really keeps us alive: a bridge of stories, memories of both the good and the bad that shine alone like droplets in the sun and then, all together in utter beauty as Torah, span one generation to the next.

My grandfather, a baker by trade, never let his family eat fresh bread. He maintained that it was at its best flavor a day out of the oven—when no longer perfect. I think the same is true of humanity. The parts of us that achieve only fleeting loveliness and, like a rainbow, grow weaker behind clouds, are what compel us to strive to improve and create better lives for generations that follow. Like a potter fashioning a bowl over and over again until it’s smooth and even, God also took a few tries to get us right. I believe this awareness can bring us closer to God, and to each other, as we learn to see our common flaws and struggles. One day we many even save those with whom we share this world, just as Noah and my grandfather did.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

536. Simhat Torah 5768, part 1

Yesterday was a most incredible day.

Yesterday began the night before, with the Simhat Torah evening service. Although the dancing part takes up much more time than the formal prayer part, it is definitely "service"--gratitude in motion, unencumbered by language. We throw a good party at my synagogue, and the evening installment always threatens to become more social scene than spiritual event. But this time the room practically burst with kavannah. I spent the first two hours flying around in long chains of people, weaving through big waves and slower streams but always moving forward together. At one point someone handed me a sefer Torah, and I couldn't help myself: I started jumping up and down just as I had seen the rabbis do (but always felt too self-conscious to try myself). Lo and behold, one of those rabbis was suddenly in the circle with me, holding my shoulder and jumping, as well. I remembered the first time I ever held a scroll, in a crowd just like this one. I had been afraid to move; aside from another human being, it was the most precious object I had ever grasped to my heart. Now I wanted to wave it back and forth as high up as possible so everyone could see--look at this marvelous thing!

By 10PM it was packed with barely enough room to walk, let alone jump with joy. So I downed some etrog schnapps instead, and stood on a chair with friends to watch the crowd. I stayed for the Torah reading, and got back home just before midnight. I lay awake for hours in anticipation of the day to come.

(Continued here.)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

535. Soon

A few words during a pause in the marathon... this morning, services for Shemini Atzeret and tonight, hours and hours of dancing for Simhat Torah, to be followed by more dancing tomorrow morning, and the honor I'm receiving. I am very, very happy, but also a little sad. In my gratitude and awe at all the doors that have opened for me these past years, the amazing fullness of my journey, as I acknowledge and celebrate the good, I can't help but notice the empty places, too. God separated day from night, but sometimes the difference between tears of joy and of sadness is not as clear. On this holiday we read the prayer for rain, "geshem;" the rabbi noted that this word also shares a root with another, "gashmiyut," meaning concreteness, realness. We leave the past weeks of vows and promises to re-enter a place where we must put our dreams to work. We ask for rain to grow our crops, but know it will also come, like different kinds of tears, in the form of storms and floods. Our guide to the messy, wonderful, confusing and real days ahead: the Torah, the last symbol of the last holiday in this cycle.

Enough writing before I explode from emotion (which wouldn't be too great for this laptop... I need it in good working order to write about what happens next). My cup--my ocean--overflows. Hag Sameah!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

534. R.S.V.P

Last Friday night the rabbi noted that Sukkot is called "Z'man Simhatenu," "season of our joy." But "z'man" can also mean "to invite"--to invite joy, especially if it won't come of its own accord. Sukkot is the most favorite holiday ever of just about everyone I know, but I must confess that I don't get it. I tried, but joy was a little reluctant to stop by at the party. If I lived in a place where I could spend time in nature, in the fields... with fresh produce... in a sukkah that wasn't sandwiched in an alleyway between two apartment buildings... then Sukkot would ring much truer. I tried to see the lulav as a tall sheaf of wheat reaching to the heavens as I shook, but my imagination, which worked well when it came to Book of Life and God as toothpaste tube imagery, wouldn't stretch that far.

Also--I understand the dramatic arc of these holidays, which build from despair on Tisha be-Av all the way up to Simhat Torah ecstasy. But the experience, to me, often feels more like a bipolar stutter than a logical course of emotional growth. We beat our breasts on Yom Kippur while singing prayers set to glorious, soaring melodies. We're joyous on Sukkot but read Kohelet, price of angst.

This morning at services for Hoshanah Rabbah, I finally understood. Why, asked the rabbi, do the gates close for good, metaphorically speaking, on this day rather than Yom Kippur? Because, explain the sages, on Sukkot we're happy and so can feel love more easily than on Yom haDin, the day of judgment. And God wants us to change out of love, not fear, so waits until Hoshannah Rabbah to give us that chance. I would also imagine God gives us a taste of these opposites--happiness on the heels of sadness, or vice-versa--as a reminder that outcomes aren't always what we might expect. Joy may not last forever, but neither will despair. There's always hope.

This is awfully nice of God, and a good reason to be happy. Which I am.

533. Yom Kippur 5768, part 5

(Continued from here.)

I don't really know what I sound like. The only recent recording I have of myself was made when I first helped lead on Shabbat morning, and was presented (gently and kindly) as evidence of my singing flat. Which I haven't done since (or at least no one has called me on it). I don't want to hear myself praying after the fact; the moment itself is what counts. Perhaps because I'm not used to the audio-processed me, I have an uneasy relationship with stage monitors and how to distinguish the sound in my head from the one coming out of the speakers. What I heard at my feet on Yom Kippur afternoon, courtesy of a brilliant mixing guy, was strong and confident even as I felt unsure and depleted. I liked that voice; I wanted to be that person. I thought of the rabbi's words on Shabbat Shuvah about witnesses--and here were a thousand, sitting and listening, to whom I owed the truth of being myself. So I tried to match my inside to that outside, and make reality fit perception.

I thought of my voice as an offering, and tried to sing with every single cell of my body and leave nothing behind, like the burnt korbanot in the Temple. I didn't pray the words in the machzor during the silent Amidah, but hid under my tallit instead and asked God for the strength to see and hear.

Once I listened more carefully to the monitor, I recognized the same voice as always. But I knew something had changed.

I went back into the congregation for Ne'ila and sat down next to some friends on one side, and a woman I didn't know on the other. She turned to me after the last blast of the shofar and told me her husband, a cantor, had died last year. She heard him in my voice, she said, and when I sat next to her she knew it even more. She hugged me; we cried. Lots of people came over to shake my hand, and looked me straight in the eye in a way they hadn't before.

A friend emailed the next day: "You made aliyah. You were a different person after the service than before." My first reaction was anger: no, I'm still me and I'm OK just the way I am, thank you! But perhaps I'm more visible. It is easier, relatively speaking, to be more aware than usual when stripped bare, when hungry, tired, tied in emotional knots, and surrounded by a great sound system. I need to be that person when I'm sated, comfortable, complacent, distracted. When I'm working, writing, creating art, in a place not defined by the presence of a sefer Torah. Whatever I found on Yom Kippur afternoon--what if I lose it again? The prospect is sad. I don't want to think about it. I don't know where I'm going, or why, or what's taking me there, but do know I want to live the way I sang at Minha: freely, generously, without fear.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

532. Yom Kippur 5768, part 4

(Continued from here.)

Minha on Yom Kippur begins with the Torah service, immediately loud and triumphant as the scrolls are marched around the congregation. (There's a great deal of warm-up before reaching this point during other services. But it's assumed on Yom Kippur that you've been building to the moment all day long; a two-hour break pre-Minha is a modern innovation.) As soon as I began to sing, I felt my energy fizzle like air from a leaky balloon. The rabbi walked away from the bima for a few seconds to say something to the guitarist. I got paranoid; I was sure he was asking for louder music in the background to cover my weakness.

I watched the Torah wind in and out of the aisles below and tried to imagine a laser-like ray of energy reaching from it to me, like a horizontal Star Trek transporter. That thought, combined with the smiles I could see as tired, hungry people touched the edges of the scroll with their tallitot and prayer books, made me laugh. And laughing made me feel much better. I took a deep breath and saw myself as a big, flat tube of toothpaste being squeezed by an enormous Hand of God reaching down from the heavens, or at least the ceiling. I forgot that I was thirsty and trying to sing with parched lips and indigestion in front of a thousand people.

All I thought was: I want God to hear ME. And then: how selfish--I should be singing for everyone else. Anyway, God can hear me when I don't make a sound; God, for that matter, doesn't actually hear. The irrational metaphor worked nevertheless, and I got louder and stronger. It doesn't make sense, but there you have it.

(Continued here.)

Monday, October 01, 2007

531. Yom Kippur 5768, part 3

(Continued from here.)

Shaharit ended. I sat down with the rest of the kahal and listened to a Holocaust survivor tell how she was hidden and saved by a non-Jewish family after her parents and siblings were murdered. She spoke with no bitterness at all, with pride, strength and love. At the end her granddaughter said, "If it weren't for the Holocaust, my parents would never have met, and I wouldn't be alive." Even amidst evil and obscenity, goodness and beauty always manage to survive. The universe is amazing that way.

We finished at 3, about two hours behind schedule. I was shocked; it felt like only minutes had passed, or that we had been suspended in a kind of time-less place. But my body knew otherwise. Minha was at 4:45, and I really needed to lay down for awhile. I had arranged with my old friend J., who lived a few blocks away, to crash on his sofa for what I thought would be two hours. I walked over to his building and rang the bell--no answer. Just as I was about to start wandering the streets of Manhattan in search of a spare couch, the doorman said, "Oh! He left you a key right before he had to run to the emergency room with his son!"

oy. It seems that P., five years old, was hit by a bicycle while crossing the street with J. Lots of blood and angst, but no permanent damage. I went upstairs and collapsed for a fitful but life-saving 20 minutes. On the way out I ran into my friend and his brave and bandaged little boy, as well as another dad and his kids who had come by for a play date. J. introduced me, and explained where I was going.

"Oh!" said the friend. "I meant to go to Yizkor this year--my two brothers died a few months ago."

Silence. My friend hadn't known this, either. "I am so, so, sorry," I sputtered. You know, I'm sure they'll let you in now, since the service is about to end."

"No, that's fine," he said. "At least I, uh, got to say a few words to a rabbi on this holy day."

"Oh, no, I'm not a rabbi!" I answered quickly.

"Well, a cantor then," he replied.

"No, no, I'm not an cantor either! Just someone acting like a cantor."

He nodded emphatically. "I still feel better, that's OK! At least I got to talk to someone pretending to be cantor."

He looked relieved. I felt a bit like a fraud, but very glad to be in the right place at the right time. We shook hands, and I ran back to the Very Big, Fancy Theater.

(Continued here.)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

530. Yom Kippur 5768, part 2

Happy middle of Sukkot! Too many holidays in a row. Too much work to do in the few days between them all. Is it Shabbat, or Thursday? Who can tell? My brain is tired, full of joy, and a little confused. Which is a good thing.

(Continued from here.)

I had hoped the three-mile walk would be meditative, and considered leaving my house even earlier to go via via Central Park. But waking up in the dark knocked some sense in me, and I opted for the shortest route. I also didn't want to walk too quickly for fear of getting thirsty, already a problem since I had a big deli-style pickle with my overstuffed turkey sandwich the night before.

I'm not good at casual strolling, and got to the Very Big, Fancy Theater 40 minutes early. I changed out of my running shoes and waited in the dressing room, which featured a live video feed of the stage on a big screen hanging from the wall. At 8:40 I heard the ushers counting off: "Door 7? Back of house? All ready?" And then, "Go!" The doors opened, and... one lone man carrying a tallit bag ambled into the edge of the frame. We were definitely not at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

I stood in the doorway and waited for someone else to arrive, too nervous to sit down. By 8:50 I began to wonder if Yom Kippur was perhaps some other day, and I had mistakenly slept for 24 hours in a row. Then I recalled the general custom, and tabled my paranoia for another time. A minute later, of course, everyone walked through the door calm, smiling, and ready for hours and hours of gut-wrenching prayer.

The house, bathed in shades of brown and gold, was enormous, the ceiling stratospheric, but the stage, with bima and Ark, wasn't very high up. So the effect was also intimate, a post-modern cathedral reaching towards heaven with everyone huddled together in solidarity down below. Two monitors sat at our feet, and a sound engineer fiddled with dials in the back. After a minute or two, I realized that no matter how quietly I sang or where I stood in relationship to the microphone, I would be heard perfectly. This, for some reason, was an enormous relief; I felt all the tension leave my shoulders. The room suddenly felt very safe, and not big at all.

The seats filled up slowly; for awhile I could hear no one else, as if the rabbi and I were just exchanging prayers with each other. But then the energy level began to rise. I don't understand what I felt, or how, but it happened, like were were all stuck together with glue and moving forward in a big clump of kavannah. Sometimes prayer flows like water, or tears. Sometimes it seems to drift by like a cloud. On Yom Kippur morning, prayer was like coaxing and cajoling my cat to come out from under the bed after a thunderstorm. God was a little shy, and we had to be gentler than usual. As the day wore on, all the words seemed to be just two: Shema Koleinu. Please hear us. It is amazing to me that even though we prayed the same words day after day, their meaning was a little different each time--just like the Torah, whose stories change along with our lives.

(Continued here.)


On a completely different topic, I will miss dear Regina Clare Jane, who has decided to stop blogging for awhile. Her visits and comments these past two years were a real blessing, kindness and encouragement shining through every word. If you're reading this--please know that you have made such a big difference in my life, and I hope to see you around this Internet place again soon.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

529. Yom Kippur 5768, part 1

I woke up at 5:29AM, a minute before the alarm and half an hour before I really had to be awake. I lay in bed for many minutes wondering what the day would bring. I finally got up at 6, and went into the living room to practice as the sun rose. I said a special prayer of thanks for the evening service of Kol Nidre, where I sung loudly in the crowd and was able to do most of the work of warming up even before I went to sleep. At 7:30, wearing a long white skirt, black running shoes, grey T-shirt declaring me "Property of ER" (bought on the set during a vacation in LA, first one I grabbed out of the drawer) and knapsack containing a big white tallit, mahzor, white blouse, non-leather shoes (very uncomfortable, must replace next year--fasting is hard enough without foot pain on top of it), and toothbrush (you're not really supposed to do this on Yom Kippur, but I have not yet ascended to the stage of observance where I can sing for an entire day while fasting and not brush my teeth halfway through), and set out to walk three miles to the Very Big, Fancy Theater.

I expected the streets of Manhattan to be empty so early on a Saturday, but they were filled with tourists, joggers, people buying newspapers and carrying Starbucks cups, shopkeepers opening stores, bleary-eyed people walking dogs, and other random New Yorkers doing random New York morning things.

(Continued here.)