Thursday, February 22, 2007

460. High Holy Days...5758?

They are beginning to start, once again.

The concept of Time is always a mystery to me, but I understand even less how it was Yom Kippur, and then I blinked, and suddenly everyone's planning the next round of High Holy Days. Synagogue People In Charge are taking vacations in anticipation of the spring chaos of membership drives that will pause, abruptly, as all of New York City (except me) makes a mass exodus to more pleasant climates during July and August. And then, even before summer ends, because Rosh Hashanah is so early (unlike last year, when we got a whole extra month to catch our breath and get ready to atone), a final sprint of preparation, plans, promises. I love the rhythm of the Jewish year, although it always takes me by surprise.

I don't know if I'll be asked to help lead again. But I think I will. I'm going to forget about this question until after Passover; I have enough other ways to drive myself nuts, such as learning a lot of Esther, which like a liturgical version of Pinocchio's nose seems to get longer and longer every time I practice.

Meanwhile, I'm psyched to help lead the meditation service once again. (Or, to rephrase in language congruent with contemplative practice, I'm anticipating the experience with calm, positive energy.) I demurred about making some decisions about the content of the service; maybe I should have been braver, but don't feel like I possess the right kind of knowledge or chutzpah. One day I will. Picking out the tunes, a quicker process this time because of scheduling issues, is the challenge I'm best suited to at the moment.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

459. Fine twisted linen

You gotta love those Masoretes. Of course, while engaged in the process of codifying and annotating the ancient melodies to which Torah had been chanted for centuries, they wanted to be accurate and faithful to tradition. But would it have been so hard to keep me in mind just a little bit, the poor future soul who would need to sing the word for "copper" (nehoshet) approximately 15 times in one paragraph of Parashat Terumah, and who might breathe a little easier if just a few instances of that word were set to the same melody? But no. Maybe two or three sentences about basins, hooks, and firepans could sound alike, so they might be a little quicker to memorize? Never. That would diminish from the beautiful complexity of the story of the construction of the Mishkan. What was I thinking.

My repetitive 16-verse tongue-twister was, nevertheless, fun to learn. I may have trouble focusing as visions of acacia wood, silver poles, fine twisted linen, and blue, purple and crimson yarns dance in front of the words the scroll, but if it were too easy I'm sure those Masoretes would be rolling over in their graves. They knew that without the challenge, Torah would be just another interesting story.


Update 2/22: Here's a wonderful d'var Torah about Parashat Terumah from the folks at Storahtelling. The Mishkan as Shekhinah--and the original synagogue Sisterhood.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

458. Piyyutim

A few weeks ago I went to a performance and lecture by The Tefillalt Ensemble, which doesn't have a website for their group but does for their music--

An Invitation to Piyyut

--basically an enormous chunk of all ancient Jewish music, with an emphasis (at the moment, due to availability of sources) on melodies of Sephardic origin. I agree with this Jewschool post; they're amazing, and are opening up a whole new, old world of prayer traditions. I've know about the site for awhile, and had no idea an actual band of musicians was involved. We sing one of their archived jewels almost every week at Kabbalat Shabbat services, a melody that pretty much intoxicates everyone by the second or third note.

Their concert wasn't just an echo of these MP3s, however. The Tefillalt Ensemble takes the basic structure of old tunes and adds an avant garde twist and Eastern tinge. They encouraged us to sing along, which didn't come naturally to my North American ears. But I hope, as they tour the Northeast, that their live performances don't scare away any synagogue music directors from the site. How can anyone keep singing the same, old, predictable version of "Yedid Nefesh," traditional opening prayer of Friday night services, with these 26 alternatives available? The scope of this archive, and breadth it hopes to achieve, is mind-boggling. I hope its intended audience--anyone who wants to add little more life to their prayer services--will pay attention.

Monday, February 19, 2007

457. Jazz

As they have many times before, Rachel's words about the structure of prayer, and how formal rules are necessary but beg to be broken, got me thinking again about why I like to pray. I never cared about this stuff until I found my synagogue, and then only cared a little until I learned to chant Torah five years ago. That decision didn't change my life, but did in many ways change how I fit into life. I'm lucky to know many safe, nurturing people and places, and chanting has become another. Like my most treasured relationships, it's challenging, rewarding, and a source of comfort, a respite from reality that has strengthened my connection to community as well pushed my own self-defined limits. The structure of learning, repeating, and memorizing has become kind of sanctuary in its predictability. (A nice contrast to work, since I'm a freelancer and the appearance of jobs, and payment, is never assured.)

But the moment of public prayer, when I sing what I've learned, is never predictable. Within the shifting parameters of my voice, confidence level, emotional presence, and physical health, I need to tell a story in a language I really don't understand. The result is always a surprise to me, even if the congregation can't tell. It's said that the Torah is different every time we read it because we change from year to year. So every d'var and drash, in a way, is also an improvisation, because the meanings we elicit are never known to us before we sit down to compose them. By that definition any kind of singing is improvised, as well, since we can never sound exactly the same each time no matter how much we've practiced. I'm constantly challenged to recognize the new landscape and adjust accordingly, and not remain stuck to the way I think I should sound.

So it seems we're still praying the ancient way--as Rachel quotes from Lawrence Hoffman's book, The Way Into Prayer, "like jazz improvisation around a known set of chords and themes." We can convince ourselves that we're bored because the words are the same as last week, but in truth that moment of prayer, and our presence and consciousness, is always different. Once we're aware of the freedom to break away from structure while in the middle of it, who knows where we might end up. The job of the prayer leader, I think, is to communicate his or her own instant of discovery and interpretation in order to remind the congregation of their own.

At my synagogue we're often literal about the improvisatory nature of prayer. Choices of melody, instrumental arrangements, and the order in which the service leaders begin are often decided on the fly. The congregation usually doesn't notice; services are seamless, and there's never any stopping to make decisions. But the leaders do make mistakes--and keep going, because as in life, in general, you just can't stop in the middle of something important. Basically all choices are valid, since even the most obvious and predictable will, jazz-like, eventually lead you to an unknown place.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

456. Yom Kippur 5767, part 7

I have a cold, feh. Second one this month, very annoying. So, since I don't have energy to do much of anything else, this brief window before the Day-Quil wears off seemed like a good time to curl up on the sofa with Don Carlo* and finish the coda to last September's High Holy Days:

(Continued from here.)

Unlike the hour-long warm-up of Psalms during Shaharit, Minha begins with the Torah service. No preliminaries, just plunge right into deep water. The rabbi and I walked out to the bima and began to hum a niggun. The church was almost full, an impressive crowd for 4:30 on Yom Kippur afternoon. (If I didn't have to be there, I probably would have overslept and stumbled in right before Ne'ila.) We turned to face the Ark, which suddenly seemed bigger and closer than ever before; I was speechless. I could feel the eyes of the cellist at my left as he waited, bow poised, for a signal to begin playing. The rabbi must have sensed my momentary, paralyzing state of awe, and began to sing softly under her breath: "Vayehi binsoa Aharon..." I remembered where I was and nodded to the cellist, who dropped his bow with gusto against the strings.

I didn't recognize the sounds coming out of my mouth. I didn't sound like me, to me. The notes came from somewhere completely empty and free, since I hadn't eaten for a day; their passage from my body to the outside air was unimpeded, and powered by a burst of energy I no longer had to conserve. I could use every last drop. A few times I was sure that I began on the wrong note because its placement, where the sound was physically formed in my diaphragm and head, felt so unfamiliar. But in fact I was so warmed up, having already sung for a few hours earlier in the day, and so empty inside, in a good way, that I was probably singing correctly for the first time ever.

I sat for the Torah and haftarah reading but felt like I was hiding a fire, like I was about to explode and needed to get up and dance. During the hazara, the repetition of the Amidah, I listened to my sound filling up the large space. It was very different than at the smaller theater or packed synagogue; I could hear notes bouncing off walls and people and then flying back home, as if they were playing and having fun under the watchful embrace of the large dome above.

Minha ended; the Ne'ila hazzan took over at the bima, and I sat down with my friends. But the gates had already closed, as far as I was concerned. The moment when I heard my sound coming back to me felt like the sealing, proof that God had listened and taken action. I could only pray, during the rest of the service, for enough strength and confidence during the coming year to handle the results of that action.

The shofar blew. I met up with a friend at the front of the church and, still dressed in white, headed off to a break-fast a few blocks away. It was odd to notice that the rest of the world hadn't stopped during the past three hours. I stuffed my face with multiple bagels and lox and then went home and slept for a very long time, and woke up to a clean state.

* Just my cat, don't get excited.

Friday, February 16, 2007

455. Symmetry

I have a love/hate relationship with symmetry. At services last Friday, as my eyes wandered across the intricate, intertwined Moorish landscape spanning the wall behind our Ark, I realized that for every gilt vine hugging a marble column on the left, its mirror image was curled equally upwards on the right. It's a loud space, a symphony of colors and shapes--but also perfectly balanced, as are most of the places of worship I could think of, back to the days of traditional church architecture in the shape of a cross. I think we like to pray in spaces created in our own image, in bilateral symmetry just like an arrangement of limbs and facial features. We're wired to equate symmetry with perfection and beauty, so it seems natural to seek God where these qualities are most obvious. Just as we wrap ourselves in a tallit before reciting the Shema, grabbing its four opposite corners to unite us with the ends of the earth at the moment we speak most urgently to God, we also wrap ourselves in order, wanting to believe that every action has its opposite and the world works according to a plan we can see as clearly as those four corners. I wish it really were so, but I think perfect balance is reserved for God alone.

The recent paintings I worked on reminded me how often I reject symmetry in what I design, although I love it in the places where I pray. I never gravitated to folk art, for example, or anything with a pattern. It seemed too easy. (I know it's not; I was a snob.) But among my favorite works of art are the cave paintings at Lascaux, those first attempts to represent life as an abstract visual image. They crawl randomly up and down uneven walls, yet their placement and relationship to each other makes complete sense. Like Bach, to whom I listen when I need to be calm, the paintings are right and balanced in their space without being equal on all sides, and achieve the best kind of imperfect order that humans can reach. I'm now learning to chant part of Parashat Terumah, the "parts list" of the Mishkan, which I guess is the prototype for all symmetrical houses of worship. God resides at its equal and even center, representing what we will always seek, but never find.


Update: After yesterday's depressed post, I found out that I'll be helping lead services in a few weeks. I am OK with being asked to do this rarely instead of frequently--as long as I'm asked sometimes. I feel better.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

454. A lot of Esther

I've just started to learn chapter 5 of Esther, to go along with the chapters I already know, 4 and 6. I didn't quite volunteer for this big a chunk, but the chapter 5 reader backed out at the last minute and I couldn't say no. Esther is a lot of verses and looks scary on the page, but is much, much simpler than chanting Torah; the words are straightforward, and rhythms and melodies intuitive and speech-like. I shouldn't complain; my old Torah-chanting teacher is reading almost everything else. They don't call it "the whole Megillah" for nothing. It's very, very long.

I'm also reading Torah a week from this Shabbat, and will be chanting both Esther and Torah at the Sunday morning Purim minyan. I know about 75% of everything, but that last bit, like memorizing chapter 5, reminds me of trying to cram for an exam in your favorite subject. It's great fun, but would be nice to have an extra month or so to prepare.

I'm also co-leading another meditation service. My happiness about doing that is tinged with those same old, boring doubts about why I haven't been asked to help lead the other service in so long. Then I remind myself that I haven't really been needed. Or so it seems. I really don't have a clue and don't want to ask, because I don't necessary want to know the answer. And I become aware that over the past few years I've bestowed upon this random, wonderful opportunity much more importance in my life than it warranted, because it was truly a gift. But also ephemeral. I've stopped waiting for it, and am focusing my energies to where they should be. I do miss it, though.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

453. Fear of havdalah, part 2

(Continued from here.)

But havdalah for holidays is an edited version, just part of the whole megillah. Whenever I heard Shabbat havdalah, which the rabbis sang by memory, in the dark, to a complicated, Yiddish-inflected melody I couldn't find online, it sounded impossibly long and difficult. I lumped it in the same category of secret knowledge as Birkat Hamazon, the truly interminable (in a good way) grace after meals that anyone who went to a Jewish summer camp or prayed regularly (like rabbis) could recite, impressively, without a single glance at the book, while the rest of us stumbled and mumbled along.

Of course I had no reason to doubt my ability to learn either prayer, if I set my mind to it. High Holy Day services and chanting Torah are much more difficult. But years passed I never did get around to havdalah, which began to take on mythic proportions in my mind. Adding to my self-doubt was the patient yet mocking presence of a havdalah candle in my kitchen drawer, a housewarming gift from a member of my old a cappella group. I'm pretty laid back, but still have buttons that can be pressed--as this woman did for many years, during which time we pretended to like each other but didn't, at all. (That she had a crush on my boyfriend [now ex] and I on her husband [now ex] only complicated matters.) She wasn't Jewish but knew a lot about Judaism, and took all possible opportunities to share. At the time I knew next to nothing and, because of my own guilt and mixed feelings, resented anyone who did. So when she presented me, at the housewarming party, with an odd-looking, double-wicked candle packaged in a box with Hebrew writing all over it, I smiled through gritted teeth and pretended to be thrilled. In fact I had no idea what this thing was, or why I needed it instead of something useful like the five coffee mugs I scored that evening.

The candle sat ignored in my drawer for the next seven years until an "aha!" moment while I hunted through the clutter for a jar-opener thingy and realized that I, too, could do havdalah . The secret was in my grasp. But, like most resolutions, I took action only when desperate--in this case, after I was asked to lead a shiva minyan on a Saturday night. A friend recorded an old tape of the prayer into my answering machine, which I played into my computer and repeated over and over again just like when learning High Holy Day prayers. And it wasn't so hard after all.

Now I do havdalah, with my shiny new set, whenever possible. I love the interactivity--retrieve the candle, light the match, pour the wine, juggle the accoutrements while balancing the prayerbook, although one day soon I'll have it memorized and won't have to worry about that part. Just enough busy preparation to momentarily distract from the imminent return to reality. I think my new lack of havdalah intimidation is also a comfort with endings and beginnings--with change, and accepting the necessity, and goodness, of marking time as it passes.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

452. A good week

So during the time this week I usually set aside for writing blog posts, I tried something different: I made art. Art for myself, rather than the usual kind I do many, many hours each day for clients. It's been about ten years since I've been so selfish; it's great fun. Now to figure out how to find time to do that AND write, without giving up eating or sleeping.

It's writing's turn now, though; more to come shortly.

Monday, February 05, 2007

451. Fear of havdalah, part 1

The Shabbat before last, right before we read Parashat Bo, the rabbi spoke about timing in the Torah. We're described as strangers, sojourners, gerim, even before we leave Egypt. Were we already en route when the story officially began? Perhaps we experienced a trial run, a smaller Exodus before the big one. OK, so we've been wandering forever; what else is new? But it's important, noted the rabbi, to define the beginning of a journey as well as its end. We need to be able to look back and see how far we've come. I thought about this blog and my first post exactly two years and seven days ago, and realized I can finally define the question that made me start writing in the first place. It's much simpler than I imagined. Every word is really about just one thing: Why do I sing? The answer: because I need to pray.

But endings are important, too. Last month, in a frenzy of hiddur mitzvah envy, I bought the least expensive, most beautiful havdalah set I could find. Havdalah and I have had a rocky and somewhat guilt-ridden relationship. I never heard the word until a few years ago; I think it's one of those quasi-mystical services that fell out of favor during the pragmatic modern era, popular at Jewish summer camps but otherwise relegated to a mumble by the man of the house right after sunset. Spices, candlelight, wine: the "greatest hits" of ritual objects, a feast for the senses to mark the separation of Shabbat from regular time. I watched the ceremony a few times at synagogue retreats, but never led it myself until two years ago, in front of about a thousand people, at the end of Ne'ila on Yom Kippur. This felt like competing in the Olympics without ever running the race on local turf. But I sang with confidence, pretending I was a havdalah expert a million times over and praying there wasn't a big red "H" on my forehead alerting everyone to the truth.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

450. Horse and rider and a tree

I was mesmerized by the tune the very first time I heard it. It was sung quickly and urgently by a teenage boy who had no patience to keep tempo, just as the subjects of his words must have reacted when the sea shook in high towers at their terrified sides. Every March I await the chanting of Az Yashir Moshe, the Song of the Sea, with excitement and trepidation, my understanding of its glory and horror increasing each year as I discover more about the story of my people. I shuddered yesterday morning as the words burrowed into my bones. This is the part, where God kills so we may live, that I have most trouble reconciling with our mandate to heal the world. If we're made in the image of a God who hurled horse and rider into the sea, then potential for violence is on our genes, possible to transcend but never fully eradicate. The rabbi taught this midrash after we sang:

Adonai is a warrior: why does it say so? Because at the sea God appeared to them as a mighty hero doing battle, and at Sinai God appeared to them as an elderly man full of mercy. --Mekilta, Hashirah 4

The Sefat Emet, he added, believed that the image of God to the people Israel changed depending upon their situation. Sometimes they needed a soldier, other times a parent. But I think we look in the mirror and see both, and God doesn't tell us which to focus on. That decision is ours alone.

As a further reminder to choose compassion, Shabbat Behshalah coincided yesterday with Tu BiShevat. I'm an urban creature, not entirely comfortable with this holiday; I struggle to feel at home in nature. At services on Friday night, and a beautiful, mystical Tu BiShevat seder afterwards, I was prompted to remember the trees that helped make me human, that gave me roots and stretched into the sky like my dreams. Trees are God's antenna, said the rabbi. I recalled the tall elm upon which my father and I carved my initials when I was seven, wondering how long it would take for the light green letters to turn brown. And the tallest tree in the world, right outside my window as a child. Close your eyes and watch yourself under its shade, said the rabbi; visit awhile, say hello. In all those years I don't think I ever actually touched the tree, but watched it guard me from afar as I threw snowballs against its bare branches. I wished we had been better friends. I realized, as we sang the Song of the Sea and recalled complicated times when the Jewish people emulated the warrior God and probably forgot about healing the world for awhile, that I can listen to Song of My Tree--the wind in its leaves, the music of its tenant robins--any time I want. I don't need to wait until Tu BiShevat to remember.

At the beginning of Shabbat morning services, in anticipation of the moment when we would rise and imagine ourselves at the mouth of the sea, we sang the prayer Ki Leolam Hasdo--"For God's lovingkindness endures forever"--to the tune of Az Yashir Moshe. Waters may overflow, mountains tumble, kings attack, but I believe the compassionate God of Sinai is just like a tree, changing appearance with the seasons yet always standing upright and steady at our sides in all kinds of weather.

Friday, February 02, 2007

449. Prayer meme

Mata H, Religion and Spirituality editor at BlogHer pointed me to this meme, just what I like to write about. Anyone who wants to take up the meme challenge is invited to post a link to their posts here. I look forward to the resulting, fascinating glimpse into a bunch of women bloggers' spiritual lives.

1. Do you pray/meditate? Which? How often?

I attend prayer services just about every Friday evening and Saturday morning, as well as on most Jewish holidays. I also sometimes attend weekday morning services, or pray alone at home.

2. Why is it that you pray and/or meditate?

It brings me enormous peace. Prayer somehow allows me to better focus my joy, sorrow, and all emotions in between. During and after prayer, I'm able to feel and understand on a deeper level than usual.

3. Is there a place/setting/time in which you are more likely to pray and/or meditate?

It's less the place than the community with whom I pray. My synagogue meets at various locations including a glorious, jewel-like sanctuary and a big stone church, and I always feel safe and comforted no matter where the physical location of services.

4. Do you use any physical objects to assist your prayer/meditation?

I wear a tallit, a prayer shawl, at morning services, as well as occasional evenings (Yom Kippur, and when I'm helping to lead). I've been wearing one for about five years, having grown up with the traditional practice that only men get to wear a tallit. It still feels kind of new and transgressive. I love the sensation of fabric wrapped around my shoulders like a physical manifestation of God's embrace.

5. Are you most likely to use established prayers/meditations, or to create your own style?

I prefer established prayers and songs in Hebrew. Their insight and poetry always seem to say, with utter beauty, what I need God to hear. Since I'm not fluent in Hebrew, at the moment of prayer I only absorb the gist of intention and can't focus on individual words. But that vagueness is part of what drew me closer to Judaism; I love the strong sounds of Hebrew and the continuing, unfolding mystery of the true meaning of those prayers. I'm constantly reminded of how much more there is to learn and discover and (unless I ignore the Hebrew and think only about the English translation during services) am never in danger of taking those words literally. I think this is what the study of Torah is trying to teach us: possibilities of interpretation are endless and unlimited, and God's ear is open to all.

6. Are you more likely to pray/meditate alone or in a group?

I prefer prayer and meditation in a group; I just wrote three posts about this, in fact.

7. Have you ever asked anyone to pray/meditate on your behalf? If yes, and you are comfortable sharing that experience, please do.

Only once, before I went into the hospital a few years ago and thought I might be very sick. (I was just fine, Baruch Hashem.) In the days and hours prior to my surgery, I could feel--physically--the force of everyone's good thoughts and wishes, and have no doubt this added strength helped me through the experience.

8. If asked to describe your religious affiliation/practice/belief, how would you do that?

Jewish, mostly following Conservative practice and open to exploring different paths along the same road. I belong to an unaffiliated synagogue.

9. What would you like to say about prayer/meditation that has not been asked here?

Far too much for a meme--please see the rest of my blog!