Friday, October 26, 2007

541. Links

After almost three (!!) years of hemming and hawing about this, I've finally added some links to this blog of a few other blogs I like to read (scroll down, under "Torah" in the left column). Some of these people have kindly linked to me, and I'd like to return the favor. But: on the one hand, I want people to read what I write, and links will help. On the other, I don't, which I really have to get over. I'm also more or less anonymous, and sometimes think that adding links will make me less so. If I feel irrationally paranoid over the next few weeks, I'll remove them. For now, please click on and enjoy these wonderful writers. And have a good and peaceful Shabbat, as well.

540. Better than chocolate

So I was clearly not in the best frame of mind yesterday. Then I went to a class, and learning proved a far better remedy than drugs or even chocolate.

We were a mix of seasoned meditators, new seekers, rabbis, cantors and everything in between, all of whom had expressed interest in learning to lead a contemplative Kabbalat Shabbat. We talked about what makes this kind of service different from all others: long spans of silence, focused intention on selected lines of the liturgy, repeated niggunim, intimacy, a sense of intense, private prayer while also feeling very exposed. In silence, there's nowhere to hide; you can't tune out your thoughts by raising your voice in ecstasy. You're acutely aware of the breath of the person next to you, with whom you bond deeply absent words or even a glance. That sense of nakedness, as well as connection to the congregation, is magnified even further when you're a service leader (as I can well attest). We reviewed the main elements that had to be included; there's great latitude in this kind of innovation, but also a line that can't be crossed lest the Jewishness of the ritual be lost. (To some, this line is crossed immediately with the very concept. This kind of service isn't for everyone, nor can it serve, for most congregations, as a substitute for traditional proceedings.)

We paired off in hevruta to devise our own service, one of the most exhilarating ten minutes I've had in quite awhile. Ours was based on the themes of music and sound, of listening to your own breath and how it blends with the others in the kahal. We included an extended chant on Psalm 92, "Mizmor Shir l'Yom haShabbat" and kiddush at the end consisting of slow, deliberate, and mindful sipping of a cup of wine.

We ended with a list of books to read, and a reminder that there was no substitute for learning the traditional origins of prayers as fuel for our interpretation. We'll have two more classes over the next couple of months with different rabbis. I left bursting with thanks at how fortunate I am to belong to a community where such chances can be taken--with the structure of the service as well as empowering laypeople to learn and create with each other in this way. I thought back to my first attempt last year at leading this service, when I had only the slightest clue, and realized I did pretty well. In a few weeks I'll get another chance when I lead havdalah; I have a long list of ideas to winnow down on the themes of sleep, light, winter, and... who know what else will come up once I crack a book or two. I may even suggest (very gently) the addition of a meditative element to services at my havurah.

This does indeed feel like a beginning, of--something.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

539. Silence

Once again this fall, I'm taking a meditation class at my synagogue. It's as challenging and enlightening as the last time; sometimes I sit in silence and watch my mind run and scream, and at others the quiet is a calm sea holding me afloat. Last night we did a writing meditation to answer the question, "How are you?" The answer, at that moment while scratching away with a pencil as I sat on the floor of a darkened Sanctuary, was very different than I might have given from in front of the computer. I don't want it to be. I guess that's a goal of meditation, to learn how to align the slow, calm, non-typing part of yourself with the on-deadline, overstuffed e-mailbox part.

I also want to be able to pray in silence with the same heart and kavannah as when I sing. Why, I wondered as soon as I formulated the question--isn't it enough to be able to reach wonderful places at all? Why be greedy and look for another route? But most of life is about waiting, working, planning, all places with ready silence hidden in corners, if only I remembered to look. I want to recognize more of the calm and holy in daily life, at times when singing and ecstasy isn't possible.

I didn't get there yesterday, but have two more opportunities this week. Tonight I'm going to a class about leading meditation services--the kind of service I led in May, but hopefully I'll have more of a clue in the future. And tomorrow is one of those services (led by a rabbi, whew). I'm hoping all this peace and silence will help me feel less unsettled, more inclined to write and embrace new ideas, less unsure about how to begin whatever it is I'm supposed to begin.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

538. Back to reality

In case anyone's wondering: I haven't disappeared.

I've had a hard time getting back to reality. The month of September was overwhelming, and ended with a big neon sign instructing me to start--something. But over the last two weeks I feel like I've resumed rather than begun afresh, and am not sure that's what the universe intended. (What, me second-guess fate? Never; but if life is a door, which it is, I think someone is knocking, almost too softly to hear.) Maybe I'm already doing whatever it is; I just need to give it a name. Perhaps it's about learning, or art, or relationships, or running in the park every morning. I don't know. On Shabbat the rabbi spoke about Abraham having the right tools to change the ordinary path of his life into an event of awareness. Until you understand how to see them, discoveries remain hidden in the bushes.

One of my weed-whackers or lawnmowers of the moment is a wonderful Biblical Hebrew class (suburban metaphors are not my strong suit, sorry); a symphony of practical arcana, we spent an hour and a half on the dagesh alone (the little dot inside letters). More about that, and the ending of my Simhat Torah story, when I'm more awake.

Friday, October 12, 2007

537. Parashat Noah

So much to say, so little time! In the meantime, the result of some of those hours I didn't spend writing for this blog: a d'var Torah. (There were some footnotes, which I've removed here. They attributed commentary quoted below to Nechama Lebowitz, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, and Ismar Schorsch.)

Every year as we read Parashat Noah I think about my grandfather, after whom I was named and whose yahrzeit is next week. Like Noah, he got off a boat and began afresh in a strange new place. Also like Noah, his goodness shone like a bright light in the darkness. I grew up with stories of his kindness, humor, and compassion; his strength, arriving in New York without a penny and building a successful business while raising a happy, healthy family; his artistry and humility as a master chef. At family gatherings even those relatives who couldn’t stand one another would join in conversation about how much they loved and missed Pops. Early on, I decided I wanted to be just like him when I grew up. My parents were wonderful, but also real, alive, and flawed. But my grandfather—the memory of someone I never met—was perfect.

Then, a few months ago, my cousin made a DVD of a 52-year-old home movie of his own pidyon ha-ben, the ceremony of symbolically redeeming a newborn son with pieces of silver. I clicked “play” and watched my parents dance, younger than I ever knew them, and saw a grey-haired man alone on a sofa in the background, frowning, staring at the floor. With shock I recognized Pops, just a few months before his sudden death from a stroke. I rewound the video again and again, wondering why he looked nothing like the man with the generous smile and twinkling eyes I knew so well from photos. Was he already sick? Why was no one sitting next to him? Was he angry, unhappy, in the middle of an argument? I had never before associated these words with my grandfather, never considered that he was human and so his goodness must have been tempered with other, less pleasant qualities. But in that instant, even as I was saddened to understand this truth, I felt more connected to his story than ever before.

My grandfather had imperfection in common with Noah, as well. Noah was “a righteous man, blameless in his age” (Genesis 6:9), read by many commentators as faint praise; if his generation had been less corrupt, he might not have seemed so great. And although Noah was strong and brave once the storm came and passed, he followed orders blindly in order to get there. He neither acted of his own free will, like Abraham setting off into the wilderness, nor seemed to have the guts to try and save anyone but himself while all other living beings perished. A modern commentator asks:

“Even in the last moments when Noah boards the ark, he is silent. What if instead, Noah, like Abraham, argued with God? Or asked God for mercy? Or refused to board the ark?”

He is vulnerable and insecure. His generation soon grows as evil as their ancestors’; did Noah, I wonder, ever conquer his past weakness and try to stop humanity from repeating its mistakes? Although God promises to keep God’s future wrath under control, I imagine Noah suffering from the ancient equivalent of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Still terrified by the outcome of his inaction, I hear him warning his community over and over that evil can lead to doom. No one listens; he gets frustrated; he drinks to escape his despair. Did Noah ever wish he had perished the first time around rather than witness an ungrateful, unrepentant humankind?

There are also gaps, for me, in the text of my grandfather’s life. I can only imagine what his struggles were, but the look on his face in that video told me there were many. Did he ever regret his decision to start from scratch in a strange country rather than endure predictable hardship in Probuzhna, Russia? On the surface, it seems as if neither man had a choice; you can’t say no to God, just as you can’t watch your family suffer in oppression and poverty. But they did choose—to live good, honorable lives during unbearable times rather than face sure, slow deaths.

The actions of both men merited God’s approval. My grandfather experienced God’s covenant daily through his freedom and safety in America. Noah saw it in the rainbow, which always seemed like a strange symbol of promise to me. Its awesome beauty is temporary, made of air. It has no definite beginning or end, whereas God’s other convenants—brit milah, the commandments etched in stone—are concrete and physical. Popular culture has made the rainbow into a symbol of perfection, but in reality it’s quite the opposite. It comes and goes with the shimmer of the atmosphere; we catch it only in enchanted glances.

But in other ways I think the rainbow is a perfect sign of God’s covenant in the face of our own flaws. The rainbow represents what really keeps us alive: a bridge of stories, memories of both the good and the bad that shine alone like droplets in the sun and then, all together in utter beauty as Torah, span one generation to the next.

My grandfather, a baker by trade, never let his family eat fresh bread. He maintained that it was at its best flavor a day out of the oven—when no longer perfect. I think the same is true of humanity. The parts of us that achieve only fleeting loveliness and, like a rainbow, grow weaker behind clouds, are what compel us to strive to improve and create better lives for generations that follow. Like a potter fashioning a bowl over and over again until it’s smooth and even, God also took a few tries to get us right. I believe this awareness can bring us closer to God, and to each other, as we learn to see our common flaws and struggles. One day we many even save those with whom we share this world, just as Noah and my grandfather did.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

536. Simhat Torah 5768, part 1

Yesterday was a most incredible day.

Yesterday began the night before, with the Simhat Torah evening service. Although the dancing part takes up much more time than the formal prayer part, it is definitely "service"--gratitude in motion, unencumbered by language. We throw a good party at my synagogue, and the evening installment always threatens to become more social scene than spiritual event. But this time the room practically burst with kavannah. I spent the first two hours flying around in long chains of people, weaving through big waves and slower streams but always moving forward together. At one point someone handed me a sefer Torah, and I couldn't help myself: I started jumping up and down just as I had seen the rabbis do (but always felt too self-conscious to try myself). Lo and behold, one of those rabbis was suddenly in the circle with me, holding my shoulder and jumping, as well. I remembered the first time I ever held a scroll, in a crowd just like this one. I had been afraid to move; aside from another human being, it was the most precious object I had ever grasped to my heart. Now I wanted to wave it back and forth as high up as possible so everyone could see--look at this marvelous thing!

By 10PM it was packed with barely enough room to walk, let alone jump with joy. So I downed some etrog schnapps instead, and stood on a chair with friends to watch the crowd. I stayed for the Torah reading, and got back home just before midnight. I lay awake for hours in anticipation of the day to come.

(Continued here.)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

535. Soon

A few words during a pause in the marathon... this morning, services for Shemini Atzeret and tonight, hours and hours of dancing for Simhat Torah, to be followed by more dancing tomorrow morning, and the honor I'm receiving. I am very, very happy, but also a little sad. In my gratitude and awe at all the doors that have opened for me these past years, the amazing fullness of my journey, as I acknowledge and celebrate the good, I can't help but notice the empty places, too. God separated day from night, but sometimes the difference between tears of joy and of sadness is not as clear. On this holiday we read the prayer for rain, "geshem;" the rabbi noted that this word also shares a root with another, "gashmiyut," meaning concreteness, realness. We leave the past weeks of vows and promises to re-enter a place where we must put our dreams to work. We ask for rain to grow our crops, but know it will also come, like different kinds of tears, in the form of storms and floods. Our guide to the messy, wonderful, confusing and real days ahead: the Torah, the last symbol of the last holiday in this cycle.

Enough writing before I explode from emotion (which wouldn't be too great for this laptop... I need it in good working order to write about what happens next). My cup--my ocean--overflows. Hag Sameah!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

534. R.S.V.P

Last Friday night the rabbi noted that Sukkot is called "Z'man Simhatenu," "season of our joy." But "z'man" can also mean "to invite"--to invite joy, especially if it won't come of its own accord. Sukkot is the most favorite holiday ever of just about everyone I know, but I must confess that I don't get it. I tried, but joy was a little reluctant to stop by at the party. If I lived in a place where I could spend time in nature, in the fields... with fresh produce... in a sukkah that wasn't sandwiched in an alleyway between two apartment buildings... then Sukkot would ring much truer. I tried to see the lulav as a tall sheaf of wheat reaching to the heavens as I shook, but my imagination, which worked well when it came to Book of Life and God as toothpaste tube imagery, wouldn't stretch that far.

Also--I understand the dramatic arc of these holidays, which build from despair on Tisha be-Av all the way up to Simhat Torah ecstasy. But the experience, to me, often feels more like a bipolar stutter than a logical course of emotional growth. We beat our breasts on Yom Kippur while singing prayers set to glorious, soaring melodies. We're joyous on Sukkot but read Kohelet, price of angst.

This morning at services for Hoshanah Rabbah, I finally understood. Why, asked the rabbi, do the gates close for good, metaphorically speaking, on this day rather than Yom Kippur? Because, explain the sages, on Sukkot we're happy and so can feel love more easily than on Yom haDin, the day of judgment. And God wants us to change out of love, not fear, so waits until Hoshannah Rabbah to give us that chance. I would also imagine God gives us a taste of these opposites--happiness on the heels of sadness, or vice-versa--as a reminder that outcomes aren't always what we might expect. Joy may not last forever, but neither will despair. There's always hope.

This is awfully nice of God, and a good reason to be happy. Which I am.

533. Yom Kippur 5768, part 5

(Continued from here.)

I don't really know what I sound like. The only recent recording I have of myself was made when I first helped lead on Shabbat morning, and was presented (gently and kindly) as evidence of my singing flat. Which I haven't done since (or at least no one has called me on it). I don't want to hear myself praying after the fact; the moment itself is what counts. Perhaps because I'm not used to the audio-processed me, I have an uneasy relationship with stage monitors and how to distinguish the sound in my head from the one coming out of the speakers. What I heard at my feet on Yom Kippur afternoon, courtesy of a brilliant mixing guy, was strong and confident even as I felt unsure and depleted. I liked that voice; I wanted to be that person. I thought of the rabbi's words on Shabbat Shuvah about witnesses--and here were a thousand, sitting and listening, to whom I owed the truth of being myself. So I tried to match my inside to that outside, and make reality fit perception.

I thought of my voice as an offering, and tried to sing with every single cell of my body and leave nothing behind, like the burnt korbanot in the Temple. I didn't pray the words in the machzor during the silent Amidah, but hid under my tallit instead and asked God for the strength to see and hear.

Once I listened more carefully to the monitor, I recognized the same voice as always. But I knew something had changed.

I went back into the congregation for Ne'ila and sat down next to some friends on one side, and a woman I didn't know on the other. She turned to me after the last blast of the shofar and told me her husband, a cantor, had died last year. She heard him in my voice, she said, and when I sat next to her she knew it even more. She hugged me; we cried. Lots of people came over to shake my hand, and looked me straight in the eye in a way they hadn't before.

A friend emailed the next day: "You made aliyah. You were a different person after the service than before." My first reaction was anger: no, I'm still me and I'm OK just the way I am, thank you! But perhaps I'm more visible. It is easier, relatively speaking, to be more aware than usual when stripped bare, when hungry, tired, tied in emotional knots, and surrounded by a great sound system. I need to be that person when I'm sated, comfortable, complacent, distracted. When I'm working, writing, creating art, in a place not defined by the presence of a sefer Torah. Whatever I found on Yom Kippur afternoon--what if I lose it again? The prospect is sad. I don't want to think about it. I don't know where I'm going, or why, or what's taking me there, but do know I want to live the way I sang at Minha: freely, generously, without fear.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

532. Yom Kippur 5768, part 4

(Continued from here.)

Minha on Yom Kippur begins with the Torah service, immediately loud and triumphant as the scrolls are marched around the congregation. (There's a great deal of warm-up before reaching this point during other services. But it's assumed on Yom Kippur that you've been building to the moment all day long; a two-hour break pre-Minha is a modern innovation.) As soon as I began to sing, I felt my energy fizzle like air from a leaky balloon. The rabbi walked away from the bima for a few seconds to say something to the guitarist. I got paranoid; I was sure he was asking for louder music in the background to cover my weakness.

I watched the Torah wind in and out of the aisles below and tried to imagine a laser-like ray of energy reaching from it to me, like a horizontal Star Trek transporter. That thought, combined with the smiles I could see as tired, hungry people touched the edges of the scroll with their tallitot and prayer books, made me laugh. And laughing made me feel much better. I took a deep breath and saw myself as a big, flat tube of toothpaste being squeezed by an enormous Hand of God reaching down from the heavens, or at least the ceiling. I forgot that I was thirsty and trying to sing with parched lips and indigestion in front of a thousand people.

All I thought was: I want God to hear ME. And then: how selfish--I should be singing for everyone else. Anyway, God can hear me when I don't make a sound; God, for that matter, doesn't actually hear. The irrational metaphor worked nevertheless, and I got louder and stronger. It doesn't make sense, but there you have it.

(Continued here.)

Monday, October 01, 2007

531. Yom Kippur 5768, part 3

(Continued from here.)

Shaharit ended. I sat down with the rest of the kahal and listened to a Holocaust survivor tell how she was hidden and saved by a non-Jewish family after her parents and siblings were murdered. She spoke with no bitterness at all, with pride, strength and love. At the end her granddaughter said, "If it weren't for the Holocaust, my parents would never have met, and I wouldn't be alive." Even amidst evil and obscenity, goodness and beauty always manage to survive. The universe is amazing that way.

We finished at 3, about two hours behind schedule. I was shocked; it felt like only minutes had passed, or that we had been suspended in a kind of time-less place. But my body knew otherwise. Minha was at 4:45, and I really needed to lay down for awhile. I had arranged with my old friend J., who lived a few blocks away, to crash on his sofa for what I thought would be two hours. I walked over to his building and rang the bell--no answer. Just as I was about to start wandering the streets of Manhattan in search of a spare couch, the doorman said, "Oh! He left you a key right before he had to run to the emergency room with his son!"

oy. It seems that P., five years old, was hit by a bicycle while crossing the street with J. Lots of blood and angst, but no permanent damage. I went upstairs and collapsed for a fitful but life-saving 20 minutes. On the way out I ran into my friend and his brave and bandaged little boy, as well as another dad and his kids who had come by for a play date. J. introduced me, and explained where I was going.

"Oh!" said the friend. "I meant to go to Yizkor this year--my two brothers died a few months ago."

Silence. My friend hadn't known this, either. "I am so, so, sorry," I sputtered. You know, I'm sure they'll let you in now, since the service is about to end."

"No, that's fine," he said. "At least I, uh, got to say a few words to a rabbi on this holy day."

"Oh, no, I'm not a rabbi!" I answered quickly.

"Well, a cantor then," he replied.

"No, no, I'm not an cantor either! Just someone acting like a cantor."

He nodded emphatically. "I still feel better, that's OK! At least I got to talk to someone pretending to be cantor."

He looked relieved. I felt a bit like a fraud, but very glad to be in the right place at the right time. We shook hands, and I ran back to the Very Big, Fancy Theater.

(Continued here.)