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.

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