Tuesday, July 31, 2007

513. Preparation

This past Shabbat I joined a group of great friends after services for lunch and a few hours of study. (My favorite kind of Shabbat: prayer, food, Torah, nap.) We talked about the looming specter of Elul, and how to get ready for deep and intense days to come. I know I need to prepare, but am never quite sure what that means. Classes and books help, but when they're done I often feel like the big, elusive secret is in that OTHER chapter, in the special edition only rabbis and really special people get to read. Last year I tried a mediation retreat, very unsatisfying thanks to a teacher who decided we needed to hear all about his brilliant contemplative life rather than muddling though our own. This year I will usher in the home stretch with joy (a friend's wedding later this summer) partly obscured by the low hum of sadness. Perhaps that's key to beginning anew, learning how to embrace sorrow and happiness with equal measures of gratitude.

For the past few years, most of my preparation happened unwittingly when I entered the consuming, cleansing state of concentration required to learn the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. But I know them now. I have to figure out a different tactic of distraction. I do have sort of a plan: I'm starting to run again, in hopes that repetitive, exhausting physical activity, combined with a regular dose of trees, will yield calm and clarity. A question for my handful of dear readers: how do you prepare? No matter if it's for the High Holy Days or sacred moments in other traditions, the dilemma is the same--how to get ready for a time of self-awareness and self-truth in the presence of God.

Monday, July 30, 2007

512. Commitment

Whew. The haftarah last Tuesday did its job: I'm back to thinking about hope. Any lingering sadness will be vanquished over the next seven weeks by words of consolation. If only it were that simple... but those words will help, particularly the ones I'm chanting in two weeks, and will surely be more comforting than verses about mothers eating their own children.

I don't think I've posted that I'll be helping to lead High Holy Day services again this year. It's the first time since I began this odyssey in 2004 that I didn't spend a few months of angstful anticipation wondering if I'd be asked. I finally got it through my head that I can do this for many more years of High Holy Days to come (or until we're able to hold just one service at a time thanks to the discovery of a grand, mythical Sanctuary with half a million seats buried beneath Central Park). The promise of a long-term relationship makes me sigh with relief as well as tremble. Commitment is scary and, despite my best efforts, my life has not been filled with permanence. But I'm also also proof that history can't predict the future; ten years ago I thought about God only when dangling from a cliff or watching that George Carlin routine about words you can't say on TV.

This year I found out I'd be leading via email summoning me to a meeting with the other hazzanim and instrumentalists to discuss [list of boring holiday-related logistics]. It reminded me of my permanent seder invitation with old college friends: what, you want us to ask every year? Of course you're coming!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

511. Breathless

I don't like this holiday. I don't want to be reminded of misery or read about pain and hatred. I know the day is supposed to bring strength and resolve to face truth and repair brokenness, but I don't need to set aside time to see the real world. It's there as soon as I open the paper or step over the homeless person on my corner. I try to do my part, and when that doesn't work, to hide behind my comfortable life, but brokenness sneaks up on me just the same.

Each cry and murder of Eikha last night felt like a weight crushing my chest; I could barely catch my breath by the time I had to chant chapter 4. Eikha always makes me sad, but I can usually separate the personal from the global. Not this year. My sister-in-law is dying, not over some vague, people rally all the time as long as you believe in miracles time frame, but this summer. It feels obscene to type the words. We're not close, but the pain of my niece, my dearest relative, is unbearable to witness and even less fun to re-live. Sometimes it really sucks to be an adult, to know from experience the blackness of loss and need to crawl through the mud until you surface, bleeding, on the other side. I would much rather say la la la la we can't hear you and let's run away to Tahiti, but I can't.

Still, my sister-in-law and I aren't close, and the awful thought is just an occasional intrusion. But last night Jerusalem broke into big pieces, then smaller pebbles, and then the dust of a single life, and I tried to distract my eyes but the words on the page made my voice shake and my breath a whisper. Afterwards I wondered if the problem was just stage fright with extra, added melodrama, but singing had never before made me feel so raw. On Yom Kippur we rend our clothing in a big, public production, knowing full well that a reprieve will come at sundown. On Tisha be-Av, an ordinary, private day, the only promise is uncertainty. I don't like this holiday.

I feel a little better now. I still do believe that our default state is happiness, and everything else--war, death, stupid presidents, the words of Eikha--are shorts in the wiring. I think God knew better than to put us here to be miserable. I hope this evening's words, the haftarah, will feel like salve for the raw wound of last night.

Monday, July 23, 2007

510. Leave in joy

Tonight begins Tisha be-Av, commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples and just about every other tragedy that's hit the Jewish people. It's a day about brokenness in the world, in our society, in ourselves. We chant Eikha, the Book of Lamentations, the most beautiful poem about misery every recorded. We find some hope by tomorrow evening, when we read the haftarah at Minha--if only we can cease to be evil--

Yea, you shall leave in joy and be led home secure.
Before you, mount and hill shall shout aloud,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

... These shall stand as a testimony to the Lord,
As an everlasting sign that shall not perish.

--Isaiah 56

Will we ever be good enough to merit the joy of nature, the security of life in a world that we are not ourselves destroying? I don't know. I'm glad I'll get to sing about both possibilities, the horrible and the halcyon, and acknowledge them through my breath and my heart rather than just my mind.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

509. Parting the sea

I'm taking a break from not writing about Israel to... not write about Israel but write nevertheless, and even on the topic of this blog. (It's been awhile!)

On Thursday a message with the subject "shaharit this shabbat" appeared in my inbox. I'm so used to seeing this kind of request in the bottom paragraph of an email about, say, my Torah reading assignment for June, 2009, and starting with the words "By the way...", that at first I couldn't imagine what the cantor wanted.

He was just wondering if I might be interested in leading services. Why, surely, I answered, with a couple of exclamation points.


he replied (a man of many exquisite notes, but few words).

I started sneezing an hour later, exactly what happened the last time I led, back in March. Although my mind has no problem leading two services in a row, or leading and then chanting four aliyot, as would be this case this week, my respiratory system seems to prefer just one type of singing per Shabbat. Thank you, we're done, time for lunch. So I broke out the Airborne, Cold-Eze, Zicam, NyQuil and gallons of orange juice to try and convince my nose that the concept was "mind over body," not the other way around.

At services on Friday evening I felt like someone had stepped on me. I ran home, slept for ten hours, and woke up almost human. Then I took a DayQuil, and it was like Moses parted the sea inside my sinuses: freedom.

My mind agreed. I don't think I'll ever understand why I, a person with stage fright, most comfortable in the back row of any public gathering, whose knees generally shake in the presence of Torah scrolls or rabbis, am so happy praying in front of a crowd. But I always feel like I've come home. It's never easy; there's way too much to think about (does that raised pinky finger mean I'm supposed to sing the next three lines? why can't I get the microphone out of the stand? what's this tune I've never heard before in my entire life?? etc.--the same words week after week, but never a dull moment). I'm in constant fear of making a mistake and being banished from the bima forever, which I know won't happen. Irrational thoughts do not diminish my joy one bit. I love that sensation of being safe yet exposed, naked yet sheltered; it's magnified when I'm on the receiving end of waves of everyone's energy and intention, but also very present when I'm part of the sea. Either way, I think I'm addicted to praying. I want to talk to God; God wants to keep me on my toes, for which I'm grateful. Life, any other way, would be really boring.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

508. I really have not disappeared.

Words are spilling off my fingertips, but not landing here. I've taken on the self-imposed task of condensing my entire life story into 500 words. Don't ask. 5,000 words would have been much, much easier. Every night I prune, cut, and sweat, and have vowed to finish that before this. Or else I'll never finish that.

I'm at word 342... the end is in sight.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

507. Where am I?

Back home since Sunday night... recovering from really miserable jet lag, floating on residual joy, and trying to ease back into real life, with some difficulty. More to come soon!

Friday, July 06, 2007

506. In Israel (7)

7/1, evening

Writing quickly tonight because I have to get up in a few hours... Sitting on the balcony overlooking big waves rolling in on the beach.

This morning, a tour of the Rabin Center and a question-and-answer session with his daughter Dahlia Rabin, the director. A remarkable woman who left the law and politics because of the need to make so many compromises. This is a more direct way to make peace, and the Center's programs include diversity training for IDF soldiers and college outreach to young, disenfranchised Arabs and Israelis. We took a tour of the almost-constructed museum, to be finished with they find another $3 million. Right outside, two facing gardens, one named for Clinton and the other for King Hussein, living, growing symbols of the peace treaty with Jordan. Did she believe her father left a confusing legacy of both violence and conciliation? "No; he wanted the state to be good to live in, not just to die for."

Then a brief stop at Rabin Square, which I had also visited on the last trip. It was empty and quiet then, but today we lit candles and listened to the El Maleh Rahamim amidst the sounds of traffic and street musicians, which seemed a fitting legacy: life triumphs over death. Our guide spoke with passion of anger and hatred, and how everyone remembers exactly where they were at that moment. I noted, with shame, that I do not. Twelve years ago I had little interest in being Jewish, and was embarrassed by this, and by Israel in general. But now I can forgive myself. I'm still confused about many aspects of the complicated life of Israel--but I know her arms are open to me.

505. In Israel (6)

Shabbat, 7/1

Shabbat morning, a crowded room at a school in a Tel Aviv neighborhood, hot breezes and the sounds of birds floating in through the window:

I make my way up front to chant Torah, and my heart begins to pound so hard it threatens to jump from my chest. These words came from here--here!--and somehow made their way to a xerox on the Upper West Side. For the second time in my life, I'm alarmingly close to the source--for an instant, afraid I'll be burned by fire when I look. The fragile and beautiful sefer Torah, here via two continents and many, many decades, has what I imagine to be the same brown, translucent skin as its ancient sofer. My four verses are at the beginning of the parasha: Balak summons Bilam. I try to think about the meaning of the words as I chant, but can focus only on the fact that I'm the messenger of a request to a messenger. Which describes prayer as well as community, a big relay race of asking and giving so that we can help each other get closer to what we need. I return to my seat feeling like the blood of everyone present has jumped into my veins.

We walk back to the hotel after lunch, another two miles in 90-degree sun. I nap blissfully for three hours before a tour of Neve Tzedek, the old neighborhood that preceded Tel Aviv. As our guide talks about upwardly-mobile pioneers, I wonder how may of the lush, green trees are native and how many were imported and coaxed over decades to thrive in the desert. I see a row of three little ones with white bark that would look right at home in Riverside Park. Their trunks divide into three branches crowned with leaves: a letter shin. God's signature, in case I wasn't paying attention.

I've felt very comfortable since the minute I landed--almost too much so. The same hotel, Tel Aviv not so different than a year and a half ago; still amazement that I'm here, but for the first day I missed that sense of newness and change. Then at night as the sky turned purple and black, we walked through a small neighborhood lined with tan stone boxes of homes and stiebels (tiny shuls), not a word of English on the street signs, skinny cats prowling, children peering at us from balconies, and the city felt utterly foreign and mysterious once again.

504. In Israel (5)

(This and the next few posts were written last week, which feels much longer ago. Shabbat is starting in a few hours, and we'll spend it with our sister congregation here in the Galilee. I fly back on Sunday!--it doesn't seem possible. I don't want to wake up just yet from this dream. More to follow.)

Shabbat, 6/30

Friday night:

A boardwalk on the edge of a neighborhood of malls, hotels and big, sea-battered touristy restaurants. Sleepy bathers with sand still stuck to their legs, crying babies, happy dogs, everyone running up and down alongside the gently rolling ocean--and then a small forest of white plastic chairs facing the water and the big, sinking orange sun. Music of anticipation--a violin, a cello, the greetings and hugs of a gathering crowd of people in white. Our friends at this amazing new congregation create the same kind of electricity that brought me back--but Israeli style, for those stuck outside of a society divided in two. I don't know any of them but am shepping nachas, bursting with pride. Shabbat hovers over the waves as we sing and dance her in.

We eat dinner together, lots of fun even though I'm reminded that people from this country are not shy. They are loud. Some of them are rude. I like them just the same (except the ones outside my window at 3AM). We sit on the boardwalk and sing zemirot under a full moon that dances slowly behind thin grey clouds.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

503. In Israel (4)--coming soon...

I haven't had time to get online from my laptop... we've been running around non-stop, getting so enlightened I think my head will explode. It's been amazing. Tomorrow we head up north to present a Torah to a congregation near the Galilee. I have plenty of words waiting on my laptop to be posted--hopefully sometime before I leave, or when I return.