Monday, December 31, 2007

584. Quiet, part 1

A week ago Sunday, I spent most of the day looking for silence.

My apartment is old, with thick walls, and actually very quiet; with the windows closed I might as well be in a crow-free field in the middle of Iowa. I wish I could be creative with music playing in the background, but always end up listening and not thinking of much else. So I put a comfy chair (which also serves as sleeping location #12 for my cat) in the bedroom just for sitting with a laptop and writing. The conditions are perfect.

I also spend my days working at the other end of my lovely apartment. Although silence is a great trigger for my design-related neurons, with that package also comes stress about bills, clients, and everything else associated with running a business. I have become adept at the art of floating on creative endorphins while swatting away the mosquito-like intrusive thoughts. But sometimes, when I sit down in the comfy chair, my brain confuses silence-inspired work stress with the calm oasis of writing, and my apartment begins to feel like a box with lead-lined walls that deflect any creativity having to do with the putting together of words. This was my problem a week ago Sunday, and so I set off to find a different flavor of quiet.

Starbucks can be a good escape. There used to be one a block away but, in the eternal dance of banks, Duane Reades and chain eateries, it morphed into a bank. Then a smaller version opened on my side of the street. But potential patrons stalk the block awaiting an open seat and, once possessed, camp out for months at a time. (Well, maybe just minutes. But it seems like forever.) The tension is unbearable. It helps to be pre-medicated if you want to remain calm enough to think clearly while in that Starbucks. I did find a seat, wonder of wonders, but got tired of listening to the man at the next table complain about his ex-boyfriend. So I left.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

583. Break over

My brain demanded a holiday break this past week. I tried to tie up year-end loose ends, but mostly vegetated on the couch in an attempt to recharge the many batteries of the creative parts of my life. I also debated joining this--Blog365, NaBloMo on steroids, one blog post a day for an entire year. If I do, some of those will be photos or quotes from those far more articulate than I, because I'll never have time or energy for so many words. But maybe those parenthetical ideas will inspire something else... I've tried to limit the subject matter of this blog to Judaism and chanting, with occasional forays into family and life in New York, but perhaps it's time to widen the net. Or not. As of January 29 I will have been here for three years!--who could have imagined.

On Friday evening I co-led the Contemplative Shabbat service at my synagogue, which injected more energy into my lazy spirit than hours upon hours of L&O:CI (my latest guilty pleasure) ever could. One day only laypeople will lead this service, but not quite yet; I'm grateful to have shared the honor with a rabbi, which left me calm enough to meditate a bit myself. We chose "light" as our theme for these dark, waning days of the year, and spoke about references from the liturgy. I chose the first and last lines of Psalm 97:

God reigns; let the earth rejoice ...
Clouds and darkness surround You
Righteousness and justice are the foundations of Your throne
Light is sown for the righteous ...
Rejoice in God, and give thanks to God's holy name.

I found a commentary in the Metsuda Siddur suggesting that the role of clouds here was to obscure evil and wickedness and allow the light of God's goodness to shine through. So darkness is necessary to help reveal light--which is always waiting for us, as the last lines say, even when it seems the clouds will never part. The days will always get longer and brighter. I also spoke about the first blessing before the Shema:

You roll away the light from before the darkness and the darkness from before the light ...
Blessed are You, God, who brings on the evenings.

Although about creation, this is a specific blessing for evening--a time when light disappears and everything is fuzzy and unclear. Evening is when the Jewish day traditionally begins, when we start our daily lives anew; maybe the message is that we shouldn't be "blinded by the light." Perhaps we're better off looking for truth and honesty when it's a little hidden and we must search harder for the true sparks in the darkness.

Although I was thrilled to speak and sing in front of everyone, the best part of the service was the Amidah. Two dozen of us spread throughout the dark, cavernous, completely silent stone sanctuary, alone yet also accompanied. I stood near an alcove by the door, and halfway through heard a little squeak--and then another, and another. It was a bird who had taken residence under the archway long before I arrived, and I think she was praying along.


p.s.: Yikes, I did it.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

582. Electric

This Friday's Kabbalat Shabbat service was as electric as any I have experienced as a member of the congregation. I felt the energy of being up front, of leading, while sitting with everyone else, as if a spark ignited with the rabbis and cantor and spread outwards into the brush of bodies. I kept my eyes closed for most of the service but could almost see the illumination of our sounds through my eyelids. I think, after a week of mourning, we all made an unspoken, unanimous decision to re-join our souls to the world--and what a wedding it was, joy meeting sadness and whirling her away.

If you mix enough emotions together and simmer over music, they will eventually boil like a frenetic stew. Sometimes I think I could live on this nourishment alone: the vitamins of Shabbat, better than any earthly feast.

Monday, December 17, 2007

581. Equal opportunity, part 1

I met C. on my first day of kindergarten, and we remained best friends through sixth grade. From first grade on she went to St. Mary's and I stayed at P.S. 24, but we still got together at least once a week for ballet class, riding our bikes to Kissena Park so we could carve our names on the side of a tree or, on one memorable occasion (and to the great wrath of our parents), create a magic potion by mixing together all the cleaning supplies in her basement. We were very different--she wore frilly dresses, I liked "Star Trek"--but we bonded just the same. I was especially proud to know C. because my mother's best friend since childhood was also Catholic, and I wanted to be just like my mother. There were few Jews where she grew up and she spoke often of my Aunt Lil's courage, which made no sense: why would anyone be afraid of my mother? They had Jesus and we didn't, big deal. We went to Aunt Lil's every Thanksgiving and stayed late to help decorate the Christmas tree. C. drank milk with her bologna sandwiches, but her mother made sure to serve me ginger ale instead. I slept over her house on the many occasions my parents had to go to funerals.

C. and I lost touch in junior high for reasons having nothing to do with religion (she became cool and boy-crazy, I remained a geek). But by then I had learned I wasn't supposed to walk into churches whenever I felt like it, as I did for C.'s first Communion, and that the only real kind of Jew was Orthodox. And the only religion that counted was Judaism. I also understood that my mother did not subscribe to these theories, but my father, whose politics began and ended with the question "Is it good for the Jews?", did. We cultivated a don't ask, don't tell kind of relationship (possible because I only saw him every other weekend), never acknowledging that I agreed with my mother, nor that my choir performed at St. Luke's. I think he suspected, but chose to believe otherwise.

Yes, I felt guilty for misleading my dad, as well as for wishing, deep down, that he was right. The very model of modern open-mindedness, I secretly hoped we indeed were the best. But I watched Israel hating and fighting, saw the contradictions and hypocrisy around faith in my community and family, and eventually declared all religious people to be nuts, which was easier than trying to sort out my feelings. In a strange way, I guess I returned to the equal-opportunity interfaith convictions of my childhood.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

580. May her memory be for a blessing

So I have been here but not here for the past few days. On Thursday a beloved member of my community died very suddenly, a woman I didn't know well but who became a part of my life from the very first time we met. How can someone be present even when you don’t see her, actions and soul rarely interacting with your own yet reverberating loudly just the same? H. gave freely of her home, time, prayers, laughter and opinions, all with a New Yorker’s edge and a mother’s endless compassion. There are many, many wonderful people around who help create a better world. Some make sure you know it, which is fine—goodness trumps ego. Others hide in humility, and I wonder how much more they could achieve if only they would let themselves shine. I think both ends of the spectrum are fueled by insecurity about one’s place in the world. A rare few, like H., are able to struggle and achieve with faith and confidence that the seeds of their rewards are in the actions themselves. If you want love, seek it out, return the favor without any fuss and then enjoy, fully and completely, the family and friends who embrace you back with the force of a tidal wave. Over 500 people attended her funeral, and each of us had a personal connection—and, I suspect, were visited by H. in our dreams that night just as I was, awakened every few hours by the shock of emptiness. We were not close friends; I can offer only the briefest of anecdotes. But the joy and tears she let us share, the deeds of goodness, charity, endless curiosity and compassion she modeled make me want to be just like H. when I grow up. May her memory be for a blessing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

579. The reversing vav

This was not entirely news to me. At the final class of a Hebrew tutorial I took three years ago, the teacher casually mentioned that some words switch tenses when you add a letter "vav" (which also means "and") at their very beginnings. So a past tense verb miraculously becomes future, and vice-versa. (Modern Hebrew has no such weirdness.) Since I hadn't yet learned any tense beyond the past, I filed it away for future (no pun intended) reference. I subsequently noticed a preponderance of initial vavs in my Torah portions, and wondered if they were this weird thing. Translations shed little light on the phenomenon.

But last night at my wonderful and very serious Biblical Hebrew grammar class, my head practically exploded when the teacher explained that the majority of verbs in the Bible employ reversing vavs. And sometimes the initial vav also means "and" in addition to its role as time-shifter--or it doesn't. We can never know for certain. So a sentence that seems to say

"She sat and walked and stood."

might really mean

"She sat, will walk, and will stand."


"She will sit, and walked and stood."

The teacher offered one theory about this grammatical strangeness: In pre-Biblical times and often for reasons of poetic euphony, verb tenses were fluid. But the word "and" (the letter vav) always appeared in a sequence, and in a sequence there was a clear beginning and ending. Eventually the vav itself came to to signify a change of time in either direction. (Apologies to scholars. I am simplifying drastically and probably incorrectly. My brain was swimming in a sea of incredulity last night as this was explained at rapid pace.)

All I could think during class was that clever and sneaky God, by giving a us Torah written in Hebrew and full of vavs, made quite sure we would never stop trying to interpret it.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

578. Simhat Torah 5768, part 7

(Continued from here.)

A few weeks earlier I mentioned in an email to the cantor that I had learned today's portion months ago. I'm impressed, he replied. Don't be, I answered; I'm afraid I'll faint from nerves, so want to make sure I know it in my sleep.

"If you pass out," he wrote back, "we'll wake you up. :-)" (A joke, but not really.)

I begin to read, and for the first time today am certain I will remain conscious throughout the creation of the universe.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

577. Space aliens

I had the strangest dream the other night. I was at Columbus Circle and decided to walk up Central Park West--only to discover that the park, starting at about 62nd Street, was covered with plastic! A big bubble extended from the ground on the west side of the sidewalk all the way to the sky, and disappeared over a huge, invisible dome. I somehow knew it didn't end on the east side, but stopped over the Reservoir. And that it went up for miles and miles.

Why hadn't I read about this strange construction? I stopped a cop who was busy shooing people away from the trucks that lined the road, some of which spewed water from huge hoses over passing pedestrians. It was a secret, he explained. The media wasn't allowed to cover it--but didn't you notice we were building this all summer long?

I didn't. What's it for? I asked. We're trying to communicate with aliens, said the cop. We're sending a message to whomever is out there.

I sighed with relief, because my first thought was that were were fighting off some strange visitors--and I wanted Will Smith, but he was nowhere in sight. This is pretty cool, I thought. There's some hope for our government yet.

I continued up Central Park West amidst the crowds and chaos, and noticed a group of children sitting in the middle of the street. I walked over to investigate--they looked like they were playing with marbles--and saw them staring at a bunch of skinny little black frogs who hopped back and forth on the sidewalk. I had never seen such creatures before; they looked like cartoons come to life. "They're the aliens," explained one of the children, smiling. "No one recognized them. They got our message. They're really nice."

I stood in the street with the children and watched. And then I woke up and thought about this dream, and how we often fail to notice the most marvelous things under our very own eyes.

Friday, December 07, 2007

576. Rededication

This is the Shabbat of rededication and dreams--Hanukkah and Parashat Miketz, in which Joseph imagines cows, ears of grain, and good and bad fortune for the land of Egypt. At services this evening the rabbi asked us to think of a dream that didn't arrive randomly in the night--one we created willingly and purposefully, of the sort that can't predict but will determine the future just the same. Close your eyes, he suggested, and rededicate that dream, re-light its candle. Maybe it got lost in the darkness. Bring it back to the light.

I had too many of these to fit in a minute, so picked one: May anything broken within me be made whole. Wishing everyone who reads this a Shabbat Shalom--a day of rest, completeness, and peace.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

575. Silence, sleep and jazz*

I had a hard time emptying my mind during the Contemplative Shabbat service last Friday, so thought about silence instead.

I doubt that anyone is afraid of music, but many recoil from silence and meditation. Most couch it in different terms: I have no time to sit around; I don't like someone telling me what to think when I'm supposed to be quiet; I relax just fine, thank you, when I ski/read/play the tuba, etc.; it's all a bunch of New Age nonsense. There is some truth to all these reasons, but I think they're often excuses to avoid confronting the truth behind the noise of our lives.

Silence is the glue that holds together our ideas, the space between all we do. Silence, like the white of the page, is louder than everything around it. In silence is the expectation and yearning that fuels each act--the origin, in many ways, of the drama of our lives. And its evenness and lack of peaks and valleys also creates a rational side to our irrational desires, allowing us to glimpse the alternative.

Silence is not rest; we sit quietly, yet our minds still move at a thousand miles a minute. Only sleep is rest, when we can't fully remember what's happening behind the curtain. Silence is more like jazz, a transcendent state of creativity that requires structure. It has rules, even though we make it up as we go along. Like jazz, each experience of meditation is different from the one before: sometimes we observe our passing thoughts as if from far away, but during others we practically beat them down so they won't strangle us. After we leave the quiet room, in all cases, we have seen and grown something not present before we entered.

I am also saddened by silence, because it reminds me that I'm getting older. Once upon a time I could concentrate amidst of all kinds of noise. I had less of my own inner chaos to compete with the outer; now I hear cacophony whenever the two meet. Maybe more silence will lead me to a simpler life, which will allow me to need less silence.


*I got the idea for this post during services, but couldn't write it down because it was Shabbat and I was in a house of worship. So I kept repeating these three words to myself in order to remember.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

574. City of Light

Walking down Broadway the other evening, I saw a long row of trees on the median whose trunks were wound top to bottom with white lights--just the trunks, not the branches.

"How cool," I thought. "A menorah!"

Then I noticed other randomly situated half-wound trees, and some whose tops alone were bedecked--and realized that the City of New York was a little haphazard in its holiday tree lighting plan. Hanukkah had nothing to do with it. But just for a minute, it was nice to imagine a more elegant and creative commemoration of the Festival of Lights than the 70-foot Chabad menorah on 5th and 59th.

Happy Hanukkah!--may everyone's evenings and days be equally free of darkness throughout the coming week.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

573. Gloria Pizza

It’s snowing, finally. November was barely autumnal—or maybe this is our globally-warmed weather from now on. All of a sudden it’s 20 degrees out and no one’s prepared (except for my building super, who’s been sending rain forest-quality heat through our radiators since October).

One day last week the light outside was the strangest mixture of gold and silver, as if the sky couldn’t decide what it wanted to reflect. That kind of open, fresh winter morning reminds me how much I miss my parents at this time of year, when everything is cold and crisp and love and warmth stand out even more than usual. The December holiday season was much more important when I was a kid than Rosh Hashanah, which never really felt like a beginning. My mother and I would spend hours wandering through the bustle of Gertz and Alexander’s on Main Street (which looks nothing today like it did when I was 8), not buying much (I’d get a present or two—we weren’t big on that part of the ritual), and then catch the bus back home in front of Gloria Pizza. We never went in, though, because Jews didn’t eat pizza. (It had much less to do with kashrut than custom. Our food was deli. Burger King was also OK, although not McDonald's. End of story.) I discovered the wrongness of this belief later on, and went into Gloria’s occasionally when I was older—who knew it would gain near-cult status—but was a bigger fan of Barone across the street, which incredibly still stands. Barone was next to the tacky jewelry store and Woolworth’s on one side and the LIRR elevated tracks on the other, under which I once saw the tinted window of a passing black limo roll open, a hand holding an overstuffed envelope emerge, and a man in a dark suit walk by and grab the envelope without missing a beat. Thereafter I was sure Barone had interesting reasons for changing its name from “Frank and Enzo,” and felt oddly safe at its under-lit back tables.

On Main St. in December, especially when it snowed and all Queens seemed to have mufflers over its ears, the pent-up energy of the past year spilled out over store counters and through Muzak speakers and made me feel like everything could be new, even as nothing would ever change.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

572. Pillow-top and Rashi

I'm laying on my new mattress. It is heavenly. I feel like a typical American consumer of unnecessary luxury items while people on the other side of the world are starving, but I still want to stay in bed forever.

The mattress did not arrive on Friday. The delivery guys showed up with the wrong size; I called the mattress co. and yelled; they apologized profusely. I felt guilty for revealing my rude New Yorker DNA. Then they offered to send me the correct, smaller size--for the same price as the larger. I knew this made no sense but really wanted the mattress NOW, like a three-year-old stomping her foot, and almost said yes. But my common sense (or perhaps echoes of the same voices that told me I should sleep on a rock) eventually prevailed. I cancelled the order.

Five minutes minutes later the mattress co. called back and offered to deliver the correct size at a large discount. I don't understand this business model, but I don't mind it, either.

Because the Torah always seems to know what's happening in my life, last night at a contemplative Shabbat service we studied a section of this week's parasha, Vayeshev:

And when his brothers saw that it was he their father loved more than all his brothers, they hated him and they could not speak to him peacefully.
--Genesis 37:4

Rashi's commentary on the line:

From what is stated to their discredit, we may learn something to their credit: they did not say one thing with their mouth and think differently in their heart.
--Genesis Rabbah 84:9

We formed hevruta to explore our reactions to the pasuk and commentary. A contemplative hevruta is not a conversation; rather, each person speaks uninterrupted for a few minutes while the other listens with complete attention. Rarely in life do we get to be heard fully, or have the opportunity to listen fully. It is a meditative and freeing experience no matter which side of the conversation you're on.

I found myself talking about the mattress, which had refused to retreat from the front of my mind even after all those minutes of silence. I commended the honesty of Joseph's brothers; yes, the whole experience was messy and mean, but everything turned out OK. (Well, except for Pharaoh and the 40-year-exile business. But that wasn't Joseph's brothers' fault.) I told my somewhat bewildered hevruta partner how I, too, spoke my mind that very afternoon, felt bad about yelling into the phone, but also got what I wanted and deserved. In the end losing my temper stopped me from getting screwed.

I left services feeling as if I had besmirched Torah by comparing its wisdom to my dealings with a mattress company, but also determined to never be afraid of acting upon what was in my heart. (Within reason--I draw the line at throwing a loved one into a pit). Also that Rashi, and Whomever wrote down those Joseph stories in the first place, were pretty smart guys.