Tuesday, January 30, 2007

448. Dark

I would love to write something meaningful tonight, but sit here instead in semi-darkness listening to the sound of my blood boiling. The electricity in most of my apartment finally went off for good (judging by the sparks that appear whenever I try to flick the circuit breaker). Tomorrow I expect many unpleasant words with the super and electrician about why I refuse to pay for getting my wall ripped out in order to diagnose the problem. I'm annoyed that I'm so annoyed, since wrath of this magnitude could be really useful if taken to Washington and directed against a bunch of politicians. Instead I'm still at work (because I'm afraid I won't have any power at all in the morning and will miss a bunch of deadlines), wasting righteous combustion on a relatively insignificant problem of my very comfortable life.

Just before the lights went off, I read this commentary in TorahFax, a weekly d'var Torah by an Orthodox rabbi:

The morning prayers begin with verses of praise to G-d (P'sukei D'Zimra) which describe the wonders of G-d's creations and that G-d rules the world through the laws of nature. We recite the "Az Yashir" ["The Song of the Sea," which we will read at services this coming Shabbat] because it shows how G-d can change nature whenever He sees fit.

If this true, I'm putting in a request for the laws of nature to be changed right now, and for electricity to start flowing once more through that lone frayed wire. Or else I'll start to sound like everyone's grandmother: "Don't mind me. I'll just sit here in the dark."

Sunday, January 28, 2007

447. Meditation service

The service was wonderful: calm, full of love. Together we welcomed in Shabbat with many deep, warm breaths. I didn't expect to relax, since I had to concentrate on starting each chant on a universally singable note, neither too low nor too high, and then stop after a few repetitions when people seemed ready to sit in silence. But it wasn't hard at all, especially since everyone around me was so mellow. It felt like leading at my havurah, which has met for services in our homes every month or so since 2000, and is like family. The rabbi even invited me to introduce one of the prayers; I spoke about watching Shabbat candles burn, and how the line "mountains melt like wax" in Psalm 97 reminded me, this week before the nature-centered holiday of Tu BiShevat, of God's power to create as well as humankind's to haughtily and obscenely destroy by allowing global warming to melt those mountains.

I now understand that some of my self-doubt when helping lead "regular" Shabbat services (which I miss; it's been a few months) comes from feeling unequal to the task of creating ecstasy, not an expectation at the meditation service. Can I sing well enough to take people where they want to go? And I wonder, since I'm in a supporting role, relying on the musicians and other shlihei tzibur to judge the responses of the group: am I doing more or less than the leaders want? Am I messing up the balance they require to bring everyone to that amazing place?

(Yes, I think too much. My overactive brain needs to just shut up and sing.)

On the subject of ecstasy, here's a great article about the debate between emotional and intellectual approaches to prayer:

"Renewing Ecstatic Spirituality to the Beat of a Drum
...Perhaps what Schorsch [former Chancellor of JTS] and his opponents are debating is nothing less than what religion is supposed to do, in the context of a well-balanced life—educate intellectually or inspire emotionally, rein in our unruly passions or tap into them for the sake of transformation.This tension, between restraint and celebration, controlling and exciting, has been with our people since Sinai—literally. Perhaps one must, in the end, make a choice—and perhaps the choice itself is an important religious decision."

As you might guess, I'm of the school that believes there's room for both. Finding God requires brains as well as heart, however you choose to define and express these ideas.

Friday, January 26, 2007

446. Scale, part 3

(Continued from this post.)

Shabbat is a time to leave the week's painful, annoying, boring truths aside. Escape from reality during services is always a good thing. But I've never been able to hide like this during meditation, which is just fine--I find comfort in having no choice but to be honest. And even though we sit in silence, eyes closed, I can always feel the power and support of the group just as when we're all singing--even more strongly, in some ways, without the presence of music to distract us from the one task at hand. The scale of this kind of prayer falls in a unique category, neither large nor small, a hybrid space of very different texture measured by the magnitude of our shared intentions rather than the size of the room or volume of our voices. A friend sent me a poem yesterday by John Greenleaf Whittier about Quaker Meeting for Worship which says, in words as measured as the breaths of meditation itself, just what I've been trying to express:

And so I find it well to come
For deeper rest to this still room
For here the habit of the soul
Feels less the outer world's control
The strength of mutual purpose pleads
More earnestly our common needs;
And from the stillness multiplied
By these still forms on either side,
The world that time and sense have known
Falls off and leaves us God alone.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat during which the word truly falls off for 25 hours, leaving only the peace of deepest rest and God alone.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

445. Scale, part 2

(Continued from this post.)

But every time I took part in a meditation service, I became better at listening to the sounds within myself, the quiet from which I ran all week long while pursuing the distracting surface noise of daily life. I just had to not be afraid of the messy truths that arose during this stripping bare of words and music. Meditation of any kind, I think, forces us to acknowledge that our thoughts are not always in our control. We sit in silence and concentrate on reining them in, yet they continue to run rampant. But singing in a group, adhering to the structure of rhythm, melody, and fixed words, provides the framework missing when we flail about in contemplative prayer. (Drowning in chaotic thoughts when alone is painful enough; doing so during prayer on a larger scale, while sharing the experience with a group, is unbearable.) The coordinated breaths of the kahal become a kind of magic spell to access the disorganized emotions in one's heart that yearn for the structure of language. This process, I've found, can be so powerful that I sometimes convince myself I'm being honest even when just going through the motions. I can leave services bowled over by this shared sense of purpose, thrilled to have escaped for a short while--but also frustrated that prayer hasn't helped me find more of myself. In the group, ironically, I find sanctuary from the very truths this structure has enabled me to access.

(Continued in this post.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

444. Scale, part 1

I've been thinking lately about the scale of my prayer. Scale in the sense of size, not musical notes—the space of the stage upon which my supplications are offered. Prayer at morning minyan is small, intimate, and personal. Kabbalat Shabbat, on the other hand, is noisy, giddy, and massive; I think the volume of all our voices together catches God's attention more than the intensity of any particular one. (Not that individuals are lost in the crowd. But the spiritual force of the group as a whole becomes as singular, and powerful, as that of any one person.) This Friday I'll be helping to lead a mediation service, singing the few lines we chant in unison when not sitting in silence or listening to the rabbi's kavannot ("intentions," suggestions for the direction of our prayer). I've participated in these services for about a year; at first they made me very uncomfortable. I didn't see the point. Shabbat should be welcomed with fanfare; how could I properly mark its arrival without music to herald the dramatic switch from ordinary to sacred time? The ritual, absent the key that opened these doors for me in the first place, would be incomplete.

(Continued in this post.)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

443. Electricity

As I posted awhile back, the last thing I wrote on my old laptop before it bit the dust was this note for a blog post:


Electricity and I have had some recent problems. My building is a hundred years old; for about fifty of those, many of its important parts were held together by duct tape (including the pipes under my bathroom floor, which exploded rather impressively awhile back). Somewhere behind one of my walls, a key wire seems to have suffered the same ad hoc repair. At completely random moments, I lose electricity in three of my five rooms (thankfully excluding the one where I work). Diagnosing and fixing the problem may entail ripping apart the wall and sending me a large bill, so I'm trying to live with it for as long as I can. So far the lights have always returned, whether after a few minutes or five hours. It's a good week when I don't have to keep a chair to climb on in front of the kitchen cabinet in order to reach the circuit box way at the top behind a stack of pots and pans.

Once I got in the habit of holding my breath when flicking the light switch after being out and about, the analogies I drew were pretty obvious and not subtle. Like air and water, electricity has always been a given in my life. This literal crack in the foundation felt like a friend suddenly sick, or being laid off from a job without the two-week warning. Whenever the the lights did go on, I wanted to start dancing; when they didn't, my initial reaction was to curse, grumble and become paralyzed with grumpy annoyance. But after awhile I got tired of feeling rotten. I bought a battery-operated alarm clock in case power disappeared in the middle of the night; I learned to brush my teeth in the dark. I began to accept the routine of uncertainty. Light and its absence would come and go; the trick was in learning to navigate between those states.

This past Shabbat, as I sang about God trying to convince a man with a cold, hard heart to be human, Pharaoh became my stand-in for frayed wires and all the other big and little stresses of these past weeks. I don't know if my chanting sounded angry, but it sure seemed that way to me. And I felt great when I was done, light and free; I had no doubt that the universe heard me, and made a note. Answers might not come for awhile, but I knew I could deal with the wait. Yeah, it's that troublemaker in apt. 12C. Don't worry, you're on our schedule. Have a nice day.

Friday, January 19, 2007

442. Insects and pestilence

Oy, it's been a week. So I'm setting this Shabbat apart from other, ordinary days by writing, which always brings me peace and calm. (In my practice, the spirit of the law trumps the letter.)

As a final footnote to my foul mood, tomorrow morning I'm chanting twenty verses about insects and pestilence. This includes one of my favorite lines, which I've proclaimed on many stages in the context of folksy choral arrangements of gospel classics: "Shalah ami veya'avduni." I'm thrilled to sing "Let my people go!" in its original language, including the oft-overlooked "...so that they may worship Me" part. (I'm tempted to make it into a T-shirt, with a blank line in place of the "ami." Fill in your favorite form of oppression: Let my freedom go. Let my privacy go. Let my right to choose go. And so forth.)

Meanwhile, hurrah...it's Shabbat! And not a moment too soon.

Friday, January 12, 2007

441. Up and down

As they always do in ulpan-style classes, Yossi went on and on in Hebrew even though we understood very little of what he was saying. I felt like an alien who had eavesdropped on Earth radio signals her whole life; the sounds of the words were comfortable and familiar, although mostly incomprehensible. Then he pointed to the top of the luah, the whiteboard: "Lemala," he said. And wrote a kametz, a vowel, below a letter on the board: "Lemata."

A chill went through my body, the same sensation of grave, mysterious importance I felt when hearing the cantor sing El Maleh Rahamim for the first time since my childhood of many funerals. Why should the words for "up" and "down" make me nervous? I repeated them to myself, and suddenly remembered:

Bishiva shel mala uvishiva shel mata
Al da'at ha makom v'al da'at hahakal
Anu matirin l'hitpallel im ha'avaryanim.

"By authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below,
with divine consent and with consent of this congregation,
we hereby declare that it is permitted to pray with those who have transgressed."

This is the introduction to Kol Nidre, the prayer that begins Yom Kippur. Every September, during one brief moment just as evening falls, I hear these lines and read the translation. But I rarely consider the meanings of individual words. Hebrew is mostly a language of sounds to me, vowels and consonants dancing and singing around my heart and corresponding to no ordinary grammar. I get the point; I quake in my boots as prescribed. I understand without understanding. Like a flash fire, those Kol Nidre syllables were seared into my brain over the years after less than a minute of combined seconds of utterance, just waiting for the key to unlock their true meaning. I think I've lacked the ability to comprehend any further, as my previous abortive attempts to learn seem to indicate. I'm ready now.


My Hebrew class is down one student (V. didn't show up this week, no explanation), and R. will be away on vacation for the next three. She promised Yossi that her Israeli boyfriend would quiz her every night by the fire, aprés ski. That leaves just Vinnie Barbarino and I. (He's very motivated; his fiancée demands a thorough report after each class.) I'm kind of surprised that in this city boasting more Jews than all of Israel, only a handful of schools offer adult ed beginner Hebrew, and they attract barely enough students to fill a class. Maybe the picture (temunah) is healthier at more advanced levels.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

440. More family

Because I'm too (insert some Yiddish word here that I don't know, but which surely means a mix of frazzled, stressed out, and confused) to write at the moment, I'll post another great old photo instead. I'm not sure when (1930s?) or where (Canada? The Bronx?) this was taken; it's my father's entire side of the family. Unlike my mother's side, a number of people remain alive who can identify these faces. See if you can find my father and very young half-brother.

And what's that trophy for at the bottom?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

439. Party

My nephew (yes, one of those older than I) just sent me this image, captured from a video of his very long ago pidyon haben. I would not be born for many years; they had been married for just one. It's wonderful but a little unnerving to see them standing next to each other and looking happy--and so young--since I mostly remember less pleasant interactions. My mother was quite the fashion plate (I wish I had this dress!) and my suave, Bryllcreamed, Cary Grant-mustached father the fish out of water, more at home playing poker in the kitchen with my brother under a cloud of cigar smoke than dancing at a party. I look at this photo and can hear their voices over "Hava Nagila" blasting from the record player, his lower than the rumble of a subway, hers raspy and tender, masking all traces of a Queens accent and making sure I did the same.

How did they imagine the world in fifty years? Did they see me saying hello through time, and sharing their smiles with the entire unverse? I miss them very, very much.

438. Reward

I have a laptop!

Whew. I can once again sit in the comfy chair in my bedroom and write. (But only when there's electricity in that half of the apartment, which happens a random half the hours of every day. A boring and frustrating story, and the subject of a future post whenever I can stand to write about it.)

The arrival of this computer feels like a reward for making it through the past few weeks. Nothing dire going on, just enough to make me a little dizzy. Staying calm isn't one of my best talents, but I'm trying. I don't see very clearly at times like this, either; tonight I was thinking about how I've been asked to help lead services only once this fall, and retracing my steps and wondering (for the hundredth time) what I might have done wrong. I need to remember that all this wonderful stuff--chanting, leading, praying, writing--is means to an end, not the end itself. To forget this, to invent nonexistent crises, to get stuck in the mitzrayim, the narrow place, is to cower in the dark and cheat myself out of a good view of whatever might come next.

Monday, January 08, 2007

437. Critical mass

Yes, I'm still chanting, even though I haven't pontificated about it for awhile. In two weeks I'll read three aliyot from Parashat Vaera, all about plagues 3-5 and the repeated hardening of Pharaoh's heart. I seem to have surpassed a longstanding plateau and can now learn much faster than before: 20 verses in two weeks, although I could have spread it out over four. It's as if the Hebrew-memorizing part of my brain finally filled to critical mass, and is now starting to spill over into the singing and understanding parts. It feels good. I also plan to experiment in the third of those aliyot, just for the fun of it, with a slight variation in trop (for the munah-katon) to the current style of my Torah chanting teacher. She's employed many different melodies over the years, and keeps reminding me that trop shouldn't be static--change is good. I think I like the original way better, but will only be able to tell once I hear myself. (Assuming I'm calm enough to remember to listen.)

I'll also chant at morning minyan the week before, on the same day as my most recent student. I'd love more just like her; I've taught three people so far, all adults who were told as kids that they couldn't sing and who are now very proud to have exceeded their own expectations. Our dual presence wasn't planned in advance, and I kind of wish I weren't reading; I don't want to steal her spotlight. But it'll be great to cheer her on, join everyone in the Sheheheyanu, and vicariously re-live my first tentative steps up to the bimah five years ago. And see in her eyes the excitement of remembering that possibilities are endless, and boundaries non-existent, once you believe in yourself.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

436. Dream

Yesterday during my favorite part of Shabbat, the nap, I had a very interesting dream.

I dreamt I was living in boxy, modern, concrete and glass building, and my mother was visiting for Shabbat lunch. (My apartment, in reality, is a venerable pre-war, and my mother passed away in 1985.) We were looking through dusty boxes and crumbling leather albums of cracked, sepia-tinted photos, serious people from the Old World posed in formal tableaux. Hundreds and hundreds of photos. I was astonished; I had seen a few, but this treasure trove--who knew? We couldn't identify most of the subjects, but tried to guess.

And then one of the rabbis from my synagogue came over to visit. We invited him to stay for lunch. He saw the photos, was intrigued, and asked for more. Together the three of us combed through dozens of piles spread out over tables, chair, sofas, as the sun reflected through big windows onto a white floor.

My mother took me aside. "Why don't you do something artistic with these?" she asked.

"Well, I already do a creative thing about being Jewish by writing in my blog--the rabbi doesn't know about that, please don't tell him," I added quickly. "And I'm working on a personal design project along the same lines." (Which I am, not a dream, although it's big and involved and may never see light of day.) "Maybe I should combine that with the photos." I headed to my shiny, brushed-steel kitchen to make lunch.

Then I woke up, wondering for a second where the Sub-Zero refrigerator had gone.

I know why I had this dream. The rabbi (a different one than in my dream) spoke yesterday morning about Jacob's legacy as he prepares to die and offers blessings to his sons. They weren't really blessings, though, but more like character reflections, some rather harsh. He had planned to truly bless and reveal the future, explains Rashi, but at a critical moment was abandoned by the Shekhina, the embodiment of God carrying those truths. What will our legacy be? asked the rabbi. The Shekhina will never tell. So we must look for that wisdom within ourselves and act in ways that will become blessings for our children, rather than leave them with a divisive and crumbling world.

I thought about what my forebears passed on to me, all those unknown relatives in the photos, and what I'll have for the strangers who follow. I came to no conclusions as I sat there during the Torah reading and Musaf; we can't plan such things in a few hours, let alone a lifetime. But I think the dream was telling me to continue to create, to question, make art, sing, and everything else I know I'm supposed to do. If I follow my heart, what remains is bound to be right and good.

(At left: one of a bunch of old photos I scanned last year for a CD cover. More to follow. I have no idea who these people are, nor are any members of my family still alive who do know.)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

435. "Ani ohevet yayin."

The difference between an adult Hebrew class and what they taught me for six hours a week when I was ten: "I love wine" is a much more memorable phrase than the ones my third-grade morah (teacher) tried to shove into my brain, and which immediately fled. Many things in my life are backwards and just fine (my nieces and nephews are older than me, for example), but chanting Torah without being able to hold even the simplest conversation in Hebrew was getting on my nerves. I felt like a grown-up hiding illiteracy, ashamed to either admit it or get help.

So I signed up for 16 weeks of Beginner Aleph, i.e. Who is he? He is a man. What's this? This is a big table, etc. I already know a lot of what we'll be learning, like the alphabet and how to read (amazing how you can do that without actually being able to write all the letters), but my vocabulary includes very few words coined after the year 70. We're four students, a group that could only find each other in New York. There's a woman in her 50s from Russia (so let's call her R.) who wants to be able to speak to her Israeli boyfriend in his native language, and M., a guy from Brooklyn who works in food service, sounds like Vinnie Barbarino, and will be moving to Israel after he marries his sabra fiancée. And V., a Chinese-American father of five daughters, three of whom speak Hebrew fluently thanks to their Israeli mother. Although he's been married for ten years, V. can barely say "Shalom," and his wife and kids are getting annoyed. He entered a state of panic during our first class whenever Yossi, the teacher, introduced a new letter:

"Look at the top of page 2 and tell me what it says."

(V., an investment banker, turns pages and tries to melt into the floor by sinking as low as possible into his chair.)

"I'm sorry, I can't find page 2..."

(I lean over and help him flip past the intro section that's labeled with Hebrew letters instead of Roman numerals. V. furrows his brow and looks worried.)

"Vav? Or is it a bet? Um..."

"Mem," prompts Yossi. (We learned this letter two and a half minutes ago.) V. shrugs and rubs his forehead. "It's really confusing."

(I imagine an impatient Mrs. V. waiting at home by the front door, lips pursed and feet tapping, wondering how far Mr. V. was able to get during this latest bout of learning.)

And then there's me, a little baffling to Yossi, who keeps quizzing me on the meaning of words I don't yet know. He can't seem to believe that I lead services regularly yet am unable to order a falafel. It's going to be an interesting 15 more weeks.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

434. En route

No laptop computer yet, although it's rapidly nearing Parsippany, NJ, and in another few days will be hurled out of a UPS truck and deposited onto my lobby floor. I'm counting the minutes; writing on this... this other thing is as much fun as picking olives out of Greek salad. (I hate olives.)

This computer reminds me of everything about which I remain silent on this blog, because I already spend quite enough time with reality. Some of that other stuff has been causing me a lot of stress, even as I know I'm incredibly lucky in this life. And I feel even luckier today than yesterday, because I'm the recipient of a wonderful kindness. I always knew I wasn't alone, that God and many friends were always with me, but it's nice to be reminded.

Please join me in praying for safe transit over the Hudson for that UPS box.