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.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

528. Rosh Hashanah 5768, part 3

This past Shabbat I also learned about a Hasidic interpretation of the beginning of the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah (Hosea 14:2), which reads:

"Shuvah, Yisrael, ad Adonai Eloheha.."

"Return, O Israel, to Adonai your God..."

But (says the interpretation) what if we read the word "ad" as "ed", "witness"? Would that mean God is our witness--or Israel? The rabbi suggested thinking and acting as if both were true. What if everything we try to hide, our lies, our self-deceptions, were transparent both to God and fellow humans alike? How would this change our lives and our choices?

I think I feel naked when I lead services because I know that everyone is my witness. I wish I could remember the feeling during the rest of my life. Maybe this is why I've spent so much time singing in choirs, where it's easy--preferred, even--to blend into the crowd. Sometimes up at the bima I try to hide behind the music, but it never works; I'm not a good enough actor. When I sing and pray at the same time, I'm a pomegranate split open with my seeds falling out. If today really is a day to reciprocate God's action and open myself up, I look forward to filling those newly-emptied spaces with hope and strength.

And I wish the same for everyone reading this. G'mar chatima tovah.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

527. How can it be Sukkot next week?

Having overdosed on prayer, breast-beating, and whatever I can stuff into my mouth at the break-fast, I always think I'm done with the holiday marathon after Yom Kippur, but... no. Sukkot takes me by surprise year after year. I was reminded this afternoon courtesy of a P.S. on an email: "BTW, do you know how to chant Kohelet?" Not yet, but bring it on. I've heard the tune so often (it's also used for Ruth on Shavuot and Shir haShirim on Pesah) that I can almost sing it even before studying the trop. And Kohelet, unlike Torah or Esther, is not read from a scroll, whew, where you have to memorize the vowels and melody. I can mark up a xerox to my heart's content and take it to the bima.

I'm always surprised by the slow, reflective mournfulness of the Shalosh Regalim melody, less happy even than Eikha (Lamentations), which always sounds incongruously lilting. But it's not as ominous as the haftarah, or upbeat and decisive as Torah trop. I imagine we're supposed to remember that while we rejoiced during these three holidays, someone on the other side was probably suffering.

One more trop to go (High Holy Day) and then I'll know the whole megillah, so to speak. I'm psyched to learn something new in honor of the new year. (Never mind that I'll be singing about futility; I don't necessarily agree with Mr. Kohelet, although he certainly had a way with words.)

526. Learning (once again)

Interrupting Rosh Hashanah, 5768 to re-post some words from 2005. This morning I followed a link that led me here:

Scribbit's September Write-Away Contest

sponsored by Michelle Mitchell, author of a wonderful blog about life as a mom in Alaska. The theme for this month was "learning." I've been kind of obsessed with the topic all week long, so figured I should enter. I realized, after services last week, that I manage to learn something new from the rabbis at my synagogue even when they don't say a word--even from their gentle, generous body language at the bima, from their very breaths. Teaching seems to emanate from their every pore. In honor of this astouding gift, an old post about how the memory of another teacher led me to a different kind of awareness:

(Original post here:

Friday, June 03, 2005
91. A leaf from a tree

I had never wanted to thank so much as in that moment. It was frightening, this joyful, painful need; it didn't feel like myself. One minute I was here and then higher, dizzy, drinking in something very good, just like when I sung the B Minor Mass.

I didn't understand math when I was a kid. Then I got to high school, where math had shapes and concepts, all explained by my favorite teacher Mr. A., who divided the ideas into parts and then put them back together in a way even more exciting than literature. One day he plotted points on graph and then, just before the bell rang, connected them to form a sine curve. I recognized the shape; it was the body of a wave, the top of a mountain range, a flag in the wind. It was an equation, and yet also a picture of real things, as much a portrait as if I had painted it. They were linked, the equation and the sea, partners in the language of what made up the world. One without the other was only part of the story. I was dumbfounded by this idea, and sat staring at the blackboard even after the bell rang and everyone left for the next class.

And this was the same. My thanks were one thing, and all I was grateful for another, and they were linked. You could even argue that they were the same, two halves of a larger whole. You might choose to sing praises in an empty room, or say "you're welcome" to an anonymous crowd, but why bother? Each action needed the other in order to make sense. And I realized this was why people, sane people, people like me, could need and want to pray, and then really mean it--because they believed, they knew, that if you threw a bunch of thanks out to the universe, it had to be caught. It had to complete something else. And the receiving place, whatever my gratitude was sticking to--people, the wind--that was God.

I thought these thoughts quickly, in the time that a leaf could blow off a tree, but everything was different afterwards.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

525. Rosh Hashanah 5768, part 2

(Continued from here.)

"Both Kierkegaard and the Kotzker were concerned with the problem of truth as it pertains to self-knowledge. The problem is acute because nothing is easier than to deceive oneself. As the mind grows sophisticated, self-deception advances. The inner life become a wild, inextricable maze. Who can trust one's own motivations? One's honesty? Who can be sure whether one is worshiping one's own ego or an idol while ostensibly adoring God? There is a credibility gap within the soul, and it can only be bridged by the Spirit of Truth."

--Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth

We studied this passage at services this Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I read it and gasped; Heschel articulated exactly what I could not, as I stood at the bimah Thursday and Friday, but nevertheless wondered from somewhere deep in my kiskhes.

Services were wonderful. Making sounds came easily Thursday morning, and a little less so at the start on Friday because I was tired (I had some friends over the night before, lots of fun but perhaps not the wisest choice, in retrospect), but I warmed up after a few prayers. (I think I finally figured out the right way to prepare: start singing a few days in advance, and don't stop. Also, don't be sick.) As we got to the end of the service and I had the luxury of using up all my remaining energy, I decided to imagine there were no boundaries at all between me and--everything, the congregation, God, the universe. I thought about making sounds to fill up all possible space in the room, like water in an aquarium. I pictured my voice as a red carpet welcoming the V.I P. God who, God forbid, shouldn't have to walk on a plain old floor in order to encounter our communal souls.

It was scary to sing this way, to be so forceful and open. In the past, my fears were mostly about what people would think--will I do a good job? will I sound OK? This year I finally figured out how to trust myself, and that the bimah was a safe place with a rabbi or two at my side to catch me if I fell. But on both days my heart beat faster and faster as I continued. I think I was afraid of what Heschel wrote, above: my truth. What was I hiding in order to act confident? Was this sense of a heavenly ear justified, or my own wishful "wild, inextricable maze" of ego? It felt selfish to focus on God and our public, intimate conversation--shouldn't the congregation, on whose behalf I was praying, have been foremost in my awareness? In past years much of my strength came from everyone surrounding me, waves of it bouncing back up to the bimah like light off a mirror. This time I know I sent out more energy than I received. Which way is correct? Which is honest?

I was joyful the first day and a little angry the second, aware of my inability to pretend that I was completely happy with the state of the world, or my life. On Friday morning I heard myself sing "HaMelech" with sadness--I didn't mean to. But it came out that way. Later on I chanted the Amidah like an apology, wanting to be sure God, and all who listened, knew I really was grateful despite my doubts.

(to be continued)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

524. Rosh Hashanah 5768, part 1

(Written 9/12.)

Thoughts after the first evening of Rosh Hashanah (when I really should be asleep):

We're studying Abraham Joshua Heschel throughout the Yamim Nora'im, a little bit each day. Tonight we read about about Heschel's two main influences as a child and spiritual prodigy, the Baal Shem Tov and the Kotzker Rebbe. From the former he learned how to live a life of passion; from the latter, to rein in that passion with discipline and self-criticism. Both shaped his philosophy and made him understand the need to act and not just feel. Taught my rabbis: we also must allow ourselves to be filled these holy days with passion and emotion, but our responsibility as Jews is to translate and discipline those feelings into action.

At dinner we touched on a more abstract idea: time. A friend brought a teaching about the word "Shanah," which can be interpreted to mean not only "year" but also "change" (as in the "Mah nishatanah?" we ask on Pesah: why is this different?). At the beginning of every new year, we need to ask ourselves this same question: how have our lives changed this past year, and how do we want them to do so in the future? (Does God change, too? I wondered.) I remembered asking myself a few days ago if I would be able to bring something new to singing Shaharit, since I now know the liturgy so well. My friend suggested I think about how I am different--and also that there will be people listening for whom the service is as new as the year itself.

Can we experience time without labeling it as such? Would the Jewish concept of sacred time still exist if we didn't name it? I had to leave before we solved this existential angst.

On the way to services tonight I thought about Rosh Hashanah as days when God opens God's self, God's own arms. God welcomes us into this new year. On Yom Kippur it's our turn--we return the embrace, we open ourselves to God. We have no secrets.


(Written 9/13 early AM.)

Thoughts upon awakening, right before helping to lead services:

I had a strange and disturbing dream last night (I think I ate way too much before going to bed). I dreamt that I went back to college and was moving into my dorm room. Although I was 25+years older than everyone, my fellow students were nice and welcoming, which surprised me. But the room was a mess; the previous tenant had left lots of stuff. No one seemed to care, but I was very uncomfortable. In my dream I was desperately trying to clean up.

I was beginning again (= Rosh Hashanah). And trying to do it right. But is that ever really possible? It's uncomfortable, that's for sure.

(Continued here.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

523. Almost here

Almost here--just a few more hours. I'm remarkably organized compared to past years; this time, in place of the usual pile of random paper, I have a long, neat list of the things I didn't get around to doing. I can put off all these tasks except for one, writing and calling some people I meant to contact weeks, months, or years ago. If I don't send out three New Year's cards in particular, I should just go ahead and feast on pork and cheeseburgers for the next ten days while God throws her metaphorical hands into the air and declares me un-atoneable.

For Rosh Hashanah I'll be helping lead at the synagogue and church, and on Yom Kippur at the Big New Fancy Theater. We're no longer using the Kind Of Nice, But Cave-Like Theater. The BNFT is amazing, although it's unnerving to walk through a mall in order to get to a place of worship. On the other hand, one could view the experience (if one were looking for an excuse to pick up a killer Coach bag right before hearing the shofar) as a thought-provoking juxtaposition of spiritual and secular holiness. Fortunately I get to use the stage entrance, a discreet side door, so will face fewer temptations. This year I'm leading with only two of the rabbis, which is like saying I could have won $89 million in the lottery, but got only $74 million. Either way I'm one of the luckiest people on the planet.

I'm thankful for many, many things, but on top of my list right now is the fact that I don't have a cold. Every morning this week I've offered a prayer of unending gratitude as soon I woke up and confirmed that I could make audible sounds.

Wishing everyone a new year filled with sweetness, good health, peace, beautiful music and, of course, laughter: Shanah Tovah!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

522. Dandelions

This year I heard some people grumbling about 9/11: "Time to get over it."

No, it's not. Because we, as a country, don't know how to mourn, the first few anniversaries brought excessive displays of camera-ready grief that provided convenient masks for our real fear and anger. Since Ground Zero is now old news and there's no longer an excuse for the hoopla, some people interpret this as "time to move on." You're wrong. Not that your pain was any less than mine, but mine will never completely heal; I won't let it. Part of my story, my life, was amputated that morning. A place was murdered that was entwined with memories of my mother, dear friends, a kiss from my first boyfriend 103 stories in the clouds, the glint of sunlight bouncing off hulking slabs of concrete as seen through the leaves of an enormous, incongruous palm tree as I sang Christmas carols in the Wintergarden, the pride of feeling like an adult at one of my first summer jobs 77 stories up, where I typed invoices in triplicate while the floor swayed with the turning of the earth. (It really did.) Just like after the deaths of people I've loved, time has been a great healer. I don't think of 9/11 often, and can walk down 6th Ave. without noticing the gaping hole above the southern sky. But I believe we all need at least one day per year to consciously reflect upon what happened, and why we remain so far from peace. As we say during Yizkor: Give me the gift of tears... Give me the gift of hope. (Siddur Sim Shalom, p. 518)

Absolutely nothing is different on our political horizon today than it was six years ago. Not only have we not moved on--we've moved backwards.

That sounded very bitter. I really am not. Except for this coming morning, also a Tuesday, which I pray will be cold and cloudy, I feel the hope and joy of this New Year starting to peek up like so many dandelions between cracks of a sidewalk. When I was a kid, I had no idea dandelions were weeds. They were simply lovely bright yellow flowers that persevered no matter how challenging their patch of cement.

Here's a wonderful interview with a brilliant young rabbi in L.A. who really gets to the heart of what these Yamim Nora'im are about:
"Days of Awe" (from American Public Radio's Speaking of Faith)

Monday, September 10, 2007

521. Forgiveness, teshuva, etc.

A poem we read at Selihot services this past Saturday night:

Teach me, my God, blessing and prayer
for the secret of the withered leaf,
the brightness of the ripened fruit,
for this freedom to see,
to sense, to breathe,
to know, to wish, to fail.

Teach my lips a blessing, a song of praise
in renewal of your day,
each morning and eve.
That my today not be
like all my yesterdays;
that my day not be – merely routine.

--Leah Goldberg

Our brilliant speaker before services examined her problems with the idea of forgiveness. When we excuse those who committed grievous wrongs because they themselves were victimized, she observed, we no longer have to forgive them--we’ve decided they were blameless in the first place. Much of what we call forgiveness in popular culture falls into this category. She also defended anger, often considered a trait to be overcome, an unenlightened state. But in a world where so many of us are afraid to rock the boat, anger can spur much-needed action. Anger fueled the Prophets, she noted, in the form of righteous indignation.

I wish I had asked her what she meant by this phrase. To me it suggests self-centeredness, an attitude that ignores other points of view, and I think of the Prophets as expansive and equal opportunity in their anger--including themselves in the category of sinners. If on Yom Kippur we ask forgiveness for all humanity, not just ourselves, I imagine God prefers this kind of inclusive anger.

But I also have some issues with the communal vidui, the confessional sections of High Holy Day services where we beat our breasts (ever so gently) and recite lists of our failings over the year. I understand the importance of bearing the burden of all humankind--we may not be guilty, said Heschel, but we’re all responsible. But what gives me the right to assume the person next to me did any of those awful things? Maybe she’s a saint. Isn’t it equal hubris to cover my bases and act like she’s guilty so that I can be forgiven?

On the other hand, I guess there can be no atonement--within ourselves or from God--unless we first acknowledge that we live on this earth with others. Our prayer has no right to be self-centered.

I make the mistake of thinking of teshuva like New Year's resolutions, a list of stuff to fix. Llike every other list I make, I know I won't ever get to the last few items. I'm ashamed at myself for even putting them on the list, but it seems like the correct, albeit doomed, thing to do.Teshuva, I'm beginning to understand, really is a turning, just as the word implies--a small twist in a different direction, a subtle reorientation so you're looking ahead at a new path. Teshuva isn't a big shove to send me reeling down that path, but rather the sun starting to peek over a hill so I can see where to put my first steps.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

520. Words

I feel like I'm drowning in a sea of words. I'm behind schedule with teshuva, and just four more days remain until Rosh Hashanah. As I try to catch up, I struggle this year with how to apply some kind of sensible, sensitive grammar to my prayers, even ones that come from the deepest, most inarticulate part of my heart. I expected to be thinking less about words this year, since I know them so well after three years of helping lead services. But I fear, instead, that my ease with these words will sound rote or hollow to those who listen.

Judaism is bound to words, and this month we add accountings of our actions, both out loud and within the whispers of our hearts, to all that Torah and Talmud. It's not a vague or improvised analysis, but declarative, in sentences. We need to hear ourselves tell ourselves how we missed the mark. Words, in Jewish prayer, are seeds of ideas and actions that transcend words, and as a shaliah tzibur I believe that my accurate transmission of tradition creates a structure of language that defines spaces within which we can organize jumbled thoughts and hidden truths. I feel like my past struggles with form--how to sing and phrase--were vehicles for my kavannah. Not really knowing what I was doing forced me to think differently about what I meant and how, despite insecurity, colds, and laryngitis, to get the message across. Without that struggle, will my prayer translate beyond where only God can hear it? Will it be understood by others? Maybe the struggle never goes away, but just changes form. I guess I'll know in a few days. Or maybe I need to get used to comfort, and a new kind of language.

I pray that the chords of the High Holy Day melody at Selihot tonight will give me goosebumps just as they do every year, even though I've been listening to them for many weeks, and remind me how lucky I am to have a key to the gates, to a new beginning, to a community and rabbis and cantor who taught me how to talk to God. Now I just have to figure out how to answer.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

519. Begin again

How could another year have passed when I wasn't looking? As Judy Collins said, I really don't know time at all. (She actually said "life" and "love"... same thing.) This afternoon I had my first High Holy Day rehearsal and, dare I say, it felt almost routine; "Uvechen" flew more trippingly off my tongue than ever before. We pretended it was an alternate universe Yom Kippur and zipped through shorthand versions of all the prayers. Two more rehearsals to go this weekend with the other ensembles, since I'll be leading at three different locations. But today marked the real beginning of preparations for a different reason: I took my tallitot in to be dry-cleaned. In honor of my Lower East Side forebears, I even bargained down the price.

On my agenda for the coming week: a mound of work, much of it overdue; refraining from catching a cold; teshuva.