Tuesday, December 09, 2008

760. Water

As I mentioned before, I've been taking an excellent writing class these last few months (which just ended this week, alas). We spent the first hour in Torah study--the theme this semester was "the face of God," a big topic if ever there was one. The second hour consisted of critiquing one another's essays, and some in-class writing. That last part, as I've posted before, freaked me out, but was really good (if painful) for my soul. Here's my response to last week's 10-minute prompt, "write about a song of praise." I recalled the very end of Yom Kippur:


The late summer has passed into October, but leaves are still thick and green. But I am out of sweat: only parched exhaustion reminds me that I am still awake, and have hours left before the sun sets. Morning services end and I race back home and lie in a dark room, willing the cool air to sink into my skin like caffeine. I re-button my shirt, limp with the day's motionless air, and run back to the synagogue, where I imagine clouds crying along with us and raining into my hands and mouth. And finally the havdalah candle is extinguished, and I race to the back of the sanctuary and hold a paper cup in my dry, trembling fingers, and drink You in along with all my prayers.

Monday, December 08, 2008

759. Dinah

This Shabbat I'll be chanting about the rape of Dinah. These days I'm better able to practice while keeping the story in my head, which has paradoxically made the process more difficult. I feel an almost physical ache when sing these words:

Vayar otah Shchem ben-Chamor haChivi nesi ha'arets vayikach otah vayishkav otah vaye'aneha.

She was seen by Shechem, son of the chief of the region, Chamor the Hivite. He seduced her, slept with her, and [then] raped her.
--Gen. 34:2

But the rabbi, this past Shabbat, offered an explanation rooted in Parashat Veyetze that has helped me hate this story a little less. In Vayetze, the birth of the sons of Jacob are all listed in a particular way: first their birth order, then the reasoning behind the name, and finally the name, for example:

God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore him a fifth son. And Leah said, "God has given me my reward for having given my maid to my husband." So she named him Issachar.
--Gen. 30:17-18

The account of Dinah's birth, however, breaks this pattern:

Last, she bore him a daughter, and named her Dinah.
--Gen. 30:17

Why is she described differently than all the sons? Commentators offer a number of reasons: she's merely a girl, so there you have it. Or perhaps she and Zevulon, the son named right before her, were twins--and only he merited the descriptive words, since she was essentially attached to him. Another interpretation, however, notes that the Dinah's name is the feminine form of the word meaning "judgment" or "vindication" ("Yom ha Din", the Day of Judgment, is another name for Yom Kippur). (I'm sorry to say that I don't remember who this commentator was--I wish I could take notes at Shabbat services. I'm also not sure I'm recounting the following explanation with complete accuracy, but hopefully it still makes sense.) Between Rachel, Leah, and their concubines, 12 sons--who would grow into the 12 Tribes of Israel--and one daughter were produced. Half the sons belonged to Rachel and half, Leah.* Leah's daughter could be seen as the tie-breaker--the extra who made Leah's number of offspring, and therefore standing, greater than Rachel's. In a rare example of sibling compassion, suggests the commentary, Leah names her daughter Dinah--judgment, justice--to show that she and her sister were not in competition. This child would represent equity, a moment of peace between the two. For this reason the description of the meaning of her name was omitted, so as not to link her to either woman.

The wisdom carried in Dinah's name would, by the next parasha, be tragically forgotten by the characters in this story. But for a brief time, at least, Dinah represents the kind of fairness toward which we should all strive. I will think about this, rather than the literal meaning of the words, when I chant (less loudly than everything else) vayikach otah vayishkav otah vaye'aneha.


* NOTE, 12/9: I was wrong... the rabbi was talking about a fair share of sons rather than an exact number. Please see the comments below for George's astute correction.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

758. "Let the short-lived hours speed, running smoothely, quickly by."

My 21st birthday, many years ago, was a strange day. I was a junior at Yale, and the entire East Coast had just suffered a freak early-April blizzard. I remember trudging through piles of snow in the morning to get to my my painting studio, and then clumsily tipping over a jar of turpentine on the bench where I sat in front of my canvas. I was wearing layers and layers of clothing (the studio, maybe to make us feel more like real starving artists, wasn't heated), so barely noticed at first. But turpentine is evil. It seeped through all the fabric and suddenly, an hour later, the skin on my left leg was in agonizing pain. I left the studio and made it back across town in blinding snow to my dorm, where I stood under a shower for many minutes in hopes that cool water would ease my distress. It didn't. I then hiked over to the undergrad health services building, where I joined a long line of sniffling students with hacking coughs. I gave up after an hour and instead headed to a local pharmacy, where I bought every kind of aloe and salve I could find, slathered it on my thigh, and went back to my room for a fitful nap.

That evening, leg wrapped in a bandage, I limped over to the Yale Glee Club office where 80 people sang "Happy Birthday" and then voted me in as their next manager. I heard their voices and forgot all the pain. (And my leg ended up being just fine.) Thus began a year, culminating in a tour of Europe with the group, my first time overseas, that would teach me how to start being an adult--and that music was as necessary as breathing to live life fully.

I remembered this moment in the wake of great sadness: Fenno F. Heath, Jr., conductor of the Glee Club during my tenure, and anyone else's who was lucky to be a member between the years of 1953 and 1992, passed away peacefully last Friday at 6:12 pm at the age of 81. I never before realized how much his philosophy was similar to that of the rabbis at my synagogue: give music freely, and it will repair the world. So much of my spiritual life--chanting Torah, helping lead services--as well as my work life, has its origin in what I learned from Fenno: work hard and be good at what you do. And do it with your whole heart. I'm pretty sure the voice I often hear in my head when chanting ("Don't go flat!") is his.

Forty years' worth of Glee Club members have been sharing our memories, and I added a few of my own:

I loved how Fenno would begin "'Neath the Elms." Just a little flick of the wrist in our direction--"Go!" As if to say: I gave you all the tools, and now it's your job. Don't worry, I'll help. But you lucky people get to do most of it.

Singing, since Yale, has remained my biggest hobby--in 25 years I've never been without an opportunity to raise my voice in the company of others, and owe much of this addiction to my Glee Club experience. I've had some terrific conductors, but can honestly say that none came close to Fenno for the passion and drive to excellence he managed to instill in us all, always with good humor and the reminder that this was, above all, fun. From Fenno I learned that a well-lived life must have two often-overlapping parts: singing, and everything else.

I spent an hour last Friday afternoon reading the beautiful words everyone has shared and then, as usual, went to Friday evening services at my synagogue. I belong to a congregation where prayer is always in the form of music--they subscribe completely to Fenno's exhortation that there's too much talking going on. But as I walked in, a little after 6:00 pm, my heart was heavy with the loss I knew this world would soon bear, and I wondered how I could sing of the joy that the Sabbath brings. Then I heard everyone's voices in harmony around me, and realized that if I learned one thing from Fenno it was that when given the chance to sing, take it. The outcome would always be good and healing. I bet Fenno was standing in front of the heavenly choir at that very moment and telling them the same thing.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

757. Snakes

No more long lists of birds; juicy tales of iniquity and enlightenment await instead. A while back I sung about the serpent and apple, and a week later stars in the sky. Up next: 23 verses about the rape of Dinah, just short of the part about her brothers' payback. As I'm still having trouble getting back to real, non-holiday time two months after the fact, still catching up on work I put off during all those weekdays of chag (and hoping the crappy economy will oblige with new work once this pile is gone), it feels good to get up early, take many deep breaths, and practice telling a great story. It's a tragic one, but the next parasha will not be--and I bet the one after that will. On Simhat Torah, little tributaries kept breaking off from the big, dizzy crowd of dancers and, hands on shoulders, winding sinuously around twirling circles of people and Torot. From the balcony the lines looked like a network of joyous, sneaky snakes, squeezing in and out clumps of flying spinners when they least expected it. I was surprised to find myself describing this ecstatic scene with a metaphor of the symbol of humanity's worst sin. The line between good and evil can be tenuous; it seems somehow fitting that I sing about infinite promise one week, and bottomless anger the next.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

756. Blindness

Five people from different parts of the world found this blog yesterday by Googling "baruch dayan emet." I am guessing this has something to do with the deaths in Mumbai, a tragedy beyond words. Today at services the rabbi spoke of Isaac's's life as bracketed by fear, the Akedah at one end and Jacob's deception at the other:

Isaac was seized with a violent fit of trembling. 'Who....where....is the one who trapped game and just served it to me?
--Genesis 27:33

Because Isaac was a fearful man, explained commentators, God commanded him to remain in one place and dig wells. This enabled him to look deeper and deeper, in all senses, without having to venture beyond safe walls. But it was also the reason for blindness in his old age:

Isaac had grown old and his eyesight was fading.
--Genesis 27:1

because when you never move from one place, you can't see what lies beyond the horizon. Moshe, in contrast, who brought the Jewish people far beyond all imaginable borders, had clear vision until the day of his death:

Moses was 120 years old when he died, but his eyes had not dimmed, and his natural powers had not left him.
--Deuteronomy 34:7

As the news brings more and more stories of war, hatred, and senseless murder, I wonder if we human beings will ever learn to see beyond the blindness of our own narrow walls.

Friday, November 28, 2008

755. Chair

I'm on a constant search for an ideal space in which to write. This is mainly an excuse to procrastinate, as I tell myself I can put words together only if the chair is perfectly comfy and I hear a flowing river in the background, or maybe some cooing birds, instead of the sound of honking cars. But until I find this Shangri-La, I think I've created a good interim solution. A few weeks ago I sold the hulking dust magnet of a rowing machine that sat for years in front of my bedroom window. I once tried to convince myself that if I set eyes upon this behemoth the minute I awoke, I would actually use it. This was not the case, and instead I began each morning with a large dose of guilt.

I've now moved the nostalgic, somewhat comfortable easy chair of my childhood (a big, overstuffed pillow for my back will do wonders, soon as I find time to buy it) into that space. I thought about hiring a carpenter to build a window seat, but then the chair would need to go back into the dark corner by my dresser. I like looking at it and remembering how grown-up I felt when my mother decided to move the chair out of the living room and into mine, and the afternoon I hunkered down into its graceful Danish Modern embrace, covered with throws and cushions to mask awkward and elegant wooden anorexia, to write my college application essay. Now it overlooks a wide expanse of Broadway and reminds me of all the buildings I've yet to explore.

Top photo: the chair
Bottom: Broadway (thorough a trippy windowscreen haze)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

754. Tattoo

(Is this thing on?... testing, one, two, three...)

Hello world, again.

Coming up for air, perhaps briefly or steadily. I have been drowning in work, afraid to stop and even more scared that after all my deadlines have passed, nothing else will appear in the queue. But I've been wrong about this before, so hoping the dying economy will bypass me this time, too.

Last night I had a dream that convinced me I was stuck in a rut. I was wandering in an enormous Tower Records/HMV/Virgin-type megastore (hmm, all of which have bitten the dust). I stopped in front of a wall lined from floor to ceiling with magazines on all topics imaginable--massive and overwhelming, a paper version of the Internet. My favorite sections, the graphic design/architecture/media porn titles, practically reached the sky. Suddenly I bumped into an old colleague I hadn't seen in ages, a wiry punk rock dreadlocked skateboard animator guy who is also one of the sweetest and most gracious people I've ever known. We hugged. "Wonderful to see you!"

"Hey," he said with a wink, "want to have some fun? Why don't you take my magazines to the cashier, and I'll bring yours? Let's get even more and really freak her out," he added.

It sounded like a daring and even dangerous proposition. What would people think? But I knew I had to do it.

So we raced up and down the aisles, I amassing a pile of biker, tattoo, and video game magazines, and he staggering under the weight of People and Martha Stewart. We ran up to the cash register and threw our respective stacks on the conveyor belt. The cashier looked at us like we were nuts. I smiled.

I woke up realizing it was time to charge a few bad habits and become a (relatively speaking) tattooed biker once again.

Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving (to those Americans who happen to be reading)! The hall outside my apartment has smelled like turkey since about 7:30AM. In a few hours I'll head downtown for my usual tradition of a movie and dinner with family and friends, much more fun than sweating over a stove. Wishing all of us what the pilgrims dreamed about: freedom, bounty, and peace.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

753. That same old post title

I can't bring myself to type "I'm still here" yet again, especially in light of my complete failure at this NaBloPoMo thing, but I am, and there's always next year. Life is boring if you achieve all your goals, right? I remain mired in work, some of it fun, the rest not, and all of it eating away at the parts of my life set aside for other things. I am grateful to have clients during this era of a sewer economy, so don't dare complain. I continue to dream about balance... I'll figure it out, because this blog has at least 753 more posts to go.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

752. Words, quickly

In the excellent writing workshop I'm taking, we spend some time in class actually writing. With pen and paper (I can scarcely remember the last time I tried that). What a concept!--at first I doubted I could put together coherent sentences without a keyboard, or an hour to agonize over every syllable. Not that I'm always so slow; sometime I just type, and there it is. But occasionally I doubt my entire ability to string words together, and nothing comes out. This is a great exercise to help one get over oneself. Here's what I wrote in class tonight:

I have prepared my Torah portion completely and perfectly, but I wake up on Shabbat morning in a cold sweat--I know I will forget. I don't know why I know, but I'm sure. I remember other moments of forgetting, when the letters danced unbidden on the parchment as my yad pointed insistently, unable to spear any of the words and keep them still.

More than anything, I'm afraid of being afraid.

Shivering, I walk up to the bima. I grab the yad with both hands like a baseball bat; if I imagine it's big and heavy, maybe I will be able to keep those words in their places. I look down to find the beginning of the passage, but instead of a craggy cliff of letters I see the banks of a river, and a gentle stream of words flowing between them. The lines and curves at the edge of each line seem to stretch out their serifs and crowns in greeting to meet the others. Word by word as I chant, they take my hand and lead me forward.

Monday, November 10, 2008

751. Running in place

and never catching up. That was today, from 6AM to midnight--work still overdue from October staring relentlessly from a computer screen. Maybe soon all the deadlines I pushed in order to observe four weeks of holidays will be fulfilled, but that promised land remains far away. Meanwhile, I work like mad and live in a constant state of busy guilt.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

750. Op-ed

Not that I'm obsessed or anything, but the iPhone has completely changed my reading habits and is maybe even making me smarter. Instead of taking a week to slog slowly through the Sunday New York Times, and scan the weekday edition whenever I don't mind getting covered with newsprint, I now read everything on the go neatly, cleanly, and thoroughly, no awkward folding necessary. So I've become a bigger fan than ever of the Times op-ed columns, a number of which this past week brilliantly captured the mood of this new country we live in--and served as a sober reminder of the long road ahead:

Thomas Friedman, "Finishing Our Work"
Nicholas D. Kristof, "Obama and the War on Brains"
Judith Warner, "Domestic Disturbances/Tears to Remember"
and for a little humor, Colson Whitehead, "Finally, a Thin President"

(There are many more good ones, too.)

Saturday, November 08, 2008

749. Names

Yes, this blog is still about chanting, a little of which I did today. Just 6 verses from Lekh Lekha, but nothing is ever as easy as it seems. Gen. 15:2 contained this phrase:

Vayomer Avram Adonay Elohim...
Abram said, "O Lord, God,..

Seems straightforward--except that Elohim is spelled YHVH, the tetragrammaton often used in place of the name of God. YHVH is usually pronounced "Adonai," and is pointed below the letters with the vowels of that pronunciation. But in this case YHVH had the vowels of "Elohim," and the transliteration I just cited (from my favorite Internet Cantor), also pronounces it that way.

But I was taught that in haftarah trop--ONLY haftarah trop, not Torah--two instances of "Adonai" next to each other, no matter what their vowels, meant that the second is pronounced "Elohim." Unless you happen to notice those different tiny little vowels in the Torah (a question that wouldn't be of concern elsewhere in the Tanakh), "Adonai" seems the logical pronunciation.

I didn't notice until I practiced the verses from Tikkun Simanim. There it was in parentheses: "Qere Elohim" ("chanted Elohim"). There was no note to this effect in my other tikkun or humash.

I was proud of myself for figuring it out. So I was a bit shaken when stopped by the rabbi as I chanted "Elohim" ("Only in haftarah," she whispered. "No..." I replied, unaware that the microphone picked up my protest), and after a moment of racing thoughts as I realized I couldn't really have a debate at the bima in the middle of K'riat haTorah, sang "Adonai, Adonai" and offered a silent apology to God. (Who, I guess, heard it correctly the first time.) I got right back on track and read the remaining verses just fine, which might not have happened in the past--so, in all, it was a good learning experience. I found the rabbi afterwards and told her of my discovery, and she apologized--and said she had been equally surprised to see the same word and vowels just a few verses later. Curious, I did some mad Googling last night and learned the following:

--Gen 15:2 is the first appearance in the Torah of the word "Adonai." When spelled out completely, my understanding is that it's an honorific rather than a name of God. So maybe the Masoretes, the guys who standardized the writing of the Torah, decided that the next word had to be explicitly "Elohim" (vs. a YHVH that could be mispronounced as "Adonai") to make sure the name of God was clearly distinguished?

--The exact same phrase appears in Gen. 15:8.

--There are many other instances of this spelling in the Tanakh, but I found reference to only four in the Torah (the other two: Deut. 3:24; 9:26). One day when I have lots of time I'll think about the connection between those passages...

--This type of "qere/ketiv," an instance where the written word is not pronounced as you'd expect, is called a "Qere perpetuum" and is traditionally not notated. (Other discrepancies merit little explanations in the humash or tikkun.) People just sort of knew, for a thousand years or so, how to do it. It was very considerate of Tikkum Simanim to acknowledge that times have changed.

I love all these details, which remind me of noticing shiny bits of rock embedded in the sidewalk that only sparkle when the sun hits in a particular way. Onward to 12 verses of Vayera next Shabbat, which I hope will be equally interesting, but debate-free.

748. Visceral

(Dear NaBloPoMo: The idea is to have 30 posts in 30 days, right? Well, I posted twice on Wednesday, so doubling up today only seems fair, no?)

I'm still not over the election; the glow hasn't yet disappeared. But it's more than that--on a deeply physical, almost cellular level, I feel like something elemental about the fabric of life has changed. My only experience with this sensation happened after tragedy; perhaps giving birth or getting married creates the same seismic shift in perception, but I can't (yet) compare those experiences. I'm reminded of the months post-9/11, when I had to tell myself on a regular basis that it wasn't a bad dream, and I really did live in a world where something permanent could be wiped away as cleanly as if it had never existed. Occasionally I wasn't sure if I knew the boundary between reality and imagination, since fact seemed impossible.

I had the same feeling during a small and completely benign earthquake we had in New York in 1985. It was a few months after my mother's death; I hadn't yet moved out of the apartment where I grew up, and had never before felt so unsettled and confused. I was sound asleep early on a Saturday morning and remember opening my eyes to see the knickknacks on my shelves dancing. I assumed I was having some kind of weird dream; then I felt the bed shake, and realized I was awake. It was a completely alien physical sensation, and my mind raced to define what was going on. I felt like someone had dropped me into a different universe. After a few moments my brain could function once again, and my first thought was that a nuclear bomb had been dropped and the world was ending. What does one do in this case? I wondered. I suddenly noticed the clock radio next to my bed, turned it on, and learned that we had a minor earthquake that caused no damage.

Substituting nightmare with joy, the visceral sensation felt much the same on Tuesday night. This place isn't the same place anymore.

You're out of the woods
You're out of the dark
You're out of the night
Step into the sun, step into the light
— From The Wizard of Oz

Thursday, November 06, 2008

747. Lekh Lekha: Silence and Commands

Here's the d'var Torah (borrowing generously from my post a few days ago), edited slightly for anonymity, that I just wrote in honor of ten years as a member of my synagogue:

Parashat Lekh Lekha
Silence and Commands

As I write this, the outcome is still a mystery. As you read this, a decision has been made and some people will be happy, others not, but one thing is certain: those who cast a vote will be proud to have done the right thing. To waive that right is to discard everything this country stands for.

At least that's how I answered my tenth grade history teacher when he asked: why vote? At 15, I didn't spend a lot of time questioning authority. I loved school and believed my parents most of the time, and had no desire to rock the boat. I remember raising my hand, sure that my perfect response would make me the star of the class.

Instead, the teacher pushed his glasses a little further down his nose and replied, "So what happens if you don't vote?"

What a silly question, I thought. "Then you're a bad citizen!"

"But as citizens we have the right to make any choice," he said. "And they all count, including the choice to NOT vote."

I had no answer to that. I was speechless, in fact. The idea that refraining from action could also express an opinion had never occurred to me.

My teacher's words became a convenient proof text for the rebellion of willful adolescent indifference. For years I remained ambivalent about voting, and believed my silence spoke louder as a personal statement. What better way to provoke authority than to join a majority of "undecideds" and align with a million cold stares? But as I got older I understood that there were different kinds of silence, and I was not really expressing what I had intended.

Silence can be a quiet act of connection, a joining together of community, in which the absence of words creates a powerful oasis of reason away from the noise of society—passive resistance, for example. But it can also represent the abdication of power, a solitary, selfish tearing apart. The kind of silence I misguidedly espoused was about retreating, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

Great Streets of silence led away
To Neighborhoods of Pause —
Here was no Notice — no Dissent
No Universe — no laws —

Eventually I saw that my choice to not vote fell into this category, and that I was squandering the privilege of living in a democracy.

So when I considered the beginning of Avram's journey in Parashat Lekh Lekha, I was as annoyed with him as I had once been with myself. How could he accept, without a single word of protest, God's command to wander in the wilderness? Was he afraid to challenge God, Who gave humanity the unique power to speak, assign names, make choices—to not remain silent? And did God really want Avram, an articulate, opinionated man who defied his father's idol-worshipping ways, to disavow that power? In both this story and the Akedah, I saw Avram as wasting a gift. His blind, obedient silence was as ill-considered as my past choice to not vote.

But I've come to believe that Avram's obedience was the other kind of silence, that of trust and partnership. Although the Torah gives no details about why Avram was chosen by God, midrash and Rambam assure us he proved himself worthy by struggling for years to escape persecution for his beliefs.(1) So Avram's lack of protest at that moment of command came after a lifetime of examining the question of God's oneness. Being chosen could be seen in that light as a mutual decision that initiated a reciprocal relationship.(2) Avram's silence led him down a road where he would learn, with God's help, to make the choices that were his gift and right. That's why the command was phrased as "Lekh Lekha"—go to yourself, discover yourself, and create silence within the cacophony of life to hear God's still, small voice and become God's partner.

I was reminded of my history teacher and Avram's journey when I realized that this election week, and this country's communal leap of faith as we exercised our right to vote, also coincided with an anniversary: ten years ago this weekend I walked into Shabbat morning services at [my synagogue] for the second time ever. At the insistence of a friend I had attended the Singles retreat the weekend before, one of the few non-members to squeeze in. I thought [my synagogue] was rather strange after my first visit a few months earlier and didn't plan to come back, but my friend was so enthusiastic that I decided to give it another try. Much to my surprise—shock, actually—I was intrigued by discussions of Torah that pertained to real life, and the astonishing image of people my own age welcoming Shabbat with singing, dancing, and pure joy. It was so unlike the Judaism I knew and mostly chose to ignore, a religion of inflexible rules and prayer led by old, mumbling men, that it felt like a different religion entirely. I came home from the weekend profoundly moved, and more curious than ever.

I couldn't wait until the next Shabbat morning. I knew I had to be at services—exactly why, I wasn't sure. I remember shaking with anticipation as I listened to the beginning prayers, and after about an hour the rabbis began to talk about Parashat Lekh Lekha and God's command to embark upon a journey within oneself, destination unknown. At that moment I understood the question I had been unable to articulate, and heard the answer. I wondered, just as I did when examining the duty to vote, if complying with the obligations of my religion would be a rigid constraint rather than an opportunity to grow. But I took Avram's lead, because to ignore the command would be to embrace that other kind of silence of denial and isolation. I remain grateful beyond words for this community and its leaders, a community that has taught me to listen to the questions beyond the noise, to hear and use my own voice in so many different ways, and to dare to explore paths unknown both in the world and within myself.

1. Leibowitz, Nehama, Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), Jerusalem: Alpha Press, 1981, p.118.
2. Jospe, Raphael, “Covenant and Chosenness”

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

746. A few images from last night and this morning

Taken with a phone (and I can't get Blogger to line them up quite right), but they still get the point across. From top:

1. Dessert sampler of champions.
2. Crowds starting to gather on my street corner.
3. In front of Rockefeller Center, 8:30AM.

745. Wow

It's after 1:00AM, but crowds are still cheering on the street corner 12 stories below my apartment. I happen to live down the block from a local Democratic headquarters, so the party will probably continue until sunrise. Which is fine--enough sleeping already happened during the last eight years.

What an amazing day.

I try not to be a cynic, but I've seen enough promises broken, heard more than my share of lies, and live in a city where survival means never really trusting most people who share your sidewalk, that the tendency lurks in my psyche. But tonight I'm filled with as much pure, simple hope as is possible for any person. We really do learn from our mistakes, and this country is capable of erasing boundaries and joining hands with our neighbors. Today is more astonishing to me than setting foot on the moon. I never thought I'd type these words again: I'm proud to be an American.

After I voted, I forced myself to ignore CNN for most of the day so I could get some actual work done. At 6:00PM I left for my writing class, obsessively checking iPhone-optimized news on the Times website every few minutes. Things looked a little too close for comfort by 9:00, but when I got out of the subway the streets had already begin to fill with tentatively happy faces. I decided to pick up a few groceries and then noticed crowds at the Democratic headquarters, so crossed the street and craned my neck to watch a little portable TV in the company of a hundred others on the sidewalk. Struck up a wonderful conversation with the 60s-ish woman standing next to me, who was born in Georgia, voted in Queens, volunteered all day in Manhattan, was on her way to the Bronx, and could give Rachel Maddow a run for her money. Ran into two friends from my synagogue and decided to go across the street to a restaurant, eat sinful desserts, and watch the returns on a wide-screen TV.

And that's where I sat, savoring the last few crumbs of chocolate cake, when MSNBC called it and cheers and tears erupted all over the place. We hung out for awhile to email from our phones--psychic communication couldn't have been any faster--and then tried to get back across the street to the Democratic club. But by now hundreds and hundreds had descended upon the little storefront, dancing, crying, yelling O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA!--an explosion of completely spontaneous, communal joy. As if we all just woke up from a nightmare and needed to give each other a hug of relief. I stood on the corner in front of my building for many astonished minutes, every once in a while sharing a laugh of disbelief with another immobile stranger. Broadway buses tried to squeeze past the crowd, who parted only after everyone inside stuck their heads out the windows and waved. Cops arrived, got out of their cars, and just stood and smiled.

Finally I shook myself out of a state of shock and came back upstairs to watch the midnight speech, and cry some more.

Wow, and hallelujah.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

744. Sheheheyanu

I just got back home from voting. This feels more satisfying than hours at the gym, a million work deadlines completed, winning the lottery--not that I've ever won the lottery but, yes, I would trade lots of money for the right to exercise my voice as I did today. I believe this is the most important election of my lifetime thusfar. I couldn't sleep last night, afraid I would wake up late and miss the calm before the predicted storm of pre-work voters showing up in droves at the high school down the block.

And the gym was packed, even at 6:30AM. Lines moved quickly, though, and I had to wait only a few minutes. I ran into my neighbor, the one who taped a nasty note to my front door a few years ago about my kitchen garbage (don't ask), and who never makes eye contact in the elevator. But today she gave me a big smile and made sure I found the right place to sign in. (This reminded me of a story I just heard from a friend about his childhood next-door neighbor, with whom his father had an eternal feud. Every year after Selihot they opened the gate between their backyards, and kept it that way until the end of Hoshanah Rabbah, at which time they closed the gate and resumed not talking to each other for another 12 months.)

I looked at the names on the column in the voting booth for a very long moment before slowly and deliberately pulling each lever, one by one. I wanted to sear the image of that top name in my mind's eye so it would remain for the rest of my life, maybe to somehow convey the amazing sight to the souls of those family and friends long gone who never would have imagined such a thing. I thought of my mother, in particular, who as a child endured the pain of prejudice and bigotry as one of the few Jews in her town (yes, in Queens). And who grew up to have friends of all colors, backgrounds, and beliefs, and taught me that no one person can ever be better than another, and we can all achieve whatever we set our minds to. My mother would have been so proud to vote for a man who lived what she dreamed.

Although I'm a stauch supporter of the separation of church and state, I followed my rabbi's suggestion and said a prayer before I pulled those levers:

Baruch ata Adonai, elohainu melech ha-olam, sheheheyanu v'kee-y'manu v'hee-gee-anu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has kept us in life, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.

May the coming years sustain us far beyond simple survival and trying to escape the worst, as has become an unfortunate status quo, and instead bring an abundance of joy, prosperity, and peace to this country, and to the entire world.

Monday, November 03, 2008

743. One word

I am still working, and have to get up at the crack of dawn, so only have time to post one word. But it's the only word that counts:


(Those readers in the U.S., that is. The rest of you, pray that we all vote for the right person. Who is, I believe--more strongly than I have believed anything in a very long time--Barack Obama.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

742. Peace

I spent about six hours today trying to write my d'var Torah--I am a really, really slow writer, especially when I'm not sure what I'm trying to say--and then another two hours at a Peace Feast, a dinner and dialogue at a local church between Christians, Jews, Muslim, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Listening to everyone talk about how they achieve inner peace, and how those same techniques might work to help their families and our countries coexist, I realized that the most important thing to say, ever, was "I will listen." No matter how intelligent or insightful the other words may be, they count for nothing if they lack the spirit of acceptance and tolerance.

Afterwards I came home and didn't start learning my Torah portion, six verses of Lekh Lekha assigned on Friday (I'm guessing the Bar or Bat Mitzvah bit off a little more than he or she could chew). I finally decided to be less obsessive and accept the fact that I really can learn six verses just a few days before Shabbat.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

741. Silence

It's November 1, so I'm going to take another stab at NabloPoMo--30 posts in 30 days. My head and body have taken a long time to stop spinning from the holidays, but I know that writing a few lines every day keeps me healthier than any other method of post-Simhat Torah crashing.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to write a d'var Torah for my synagogue newsletter in honor of my tenth year as a member. I've set a goal of one of these per year, and this installment (due Monday, and I've also promised to send it around to my writing class tomorrow, oy) is proving more difficult than others. I chose Lekh Lekha because it was the Shabbat when I first understood why I was Jewish and on this journey at at all. Like Avram, I had no idea where I was going--but knew I would end up somewhere good. I was intrigued, as well, when I realized the parasha fell this year during election week, occasion of another leap of faith.

For years I was ambivalent about voting; I believed my silence spoke louder as a statement (mostly in disagreement and disgust). But as I got older, I understood that there were different kinds of silence, and I was not really expressing what I intended. Silence can become a joining together of community, a calm, quiet act of connection, where the absence of words creates a powerful oasis of reason away from the noise of life. (Passive resistance, for example.) But silence can also represent the abdication of power and rights, a solitary, selfish drawing away from community. Eventually I saw that my choice to not vote fell into the latter category, and I was squandering the precious gift of living in a democracy.

So when I thought about Avram in Lekh Lekha, I was as annoyed with him as I had been with myself. How could he just go off to who knows where at God's command without a single word of protest? Didn't God give us the unique power over to speak, give names, make choices? Did God really expect Avram, a smart, articulate, opinionated man who challenged his father's idol-worshipping ways, to disavow that power--and wasn't Avram smart enough to question such a senseless order? But this was a story of blind, unquestioning faith. During the years I viewed voting as a duty, a rule I had to obey, I felt chained and silenced by the obligation, and rebelled by doing the opposite. In both this story and the Akedah, I wondered why Abram didn't balk as well in response to God's order.

Turing this question over and over these past few weeks, I've come to believe that Avram's obedience was the other kind of silence, that of trust and partnership. Being chosen by God was a mutual decision and reciprocal relationship. He was drawn to obey for the same reason I decided to keep coming to services week after week after hearing my rabbis speak aboutLekh Lekha—translated literally: go, go to yourself—that Shabbat morning ten years ago. He knew that to do otherwise would be to squander the gift of a partner and teacher, and deny the possibility of unimagined kinds of growth.

We take the same leap when we vote, and express our gratitude at the gift of democracy. Out of the silence of obedience comes action, like Avram as he set forth on that new road. We learn how to make choices and find our own voices, just as I have been discovering my own these past years.

Hopefully these musings make sense, and I'll figure out, very soon, how to write them up as a d'var Torah.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

740. Still here

In case anyone is wondering: I truly have not disappeared. I'm still exhausted and trying to catch up with work after a month of three-day weeks, and also sneezing and coughing my head off with a miserable cold. (Not complaining, because it did have the decency to wait until after the holidays.) I'm also trying to write a d'var Torah, and have just started a writing class. More about that when I come up for air. Which will be soon!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

739. Once again

Last year at this time I created heaven and earth; now I'm about to destroy paradise. OK, I'm just the messenger--still, I can't help but note that Torah holds a mirror to the world. (Praying that this particular reflection omits the upcoming elections.) We're about to start the second year of the triennial cycle of readings, the middle of each parasha, so Bereshit will skip the fun parts and go right to the snake and apple (my reading next Shabbat). It's another really long section for me, over a column, and I'm also reading a column's worth this Shemini Atzeret. I seem to have passed some kind of learning speed bump; preparing this amount is nowhere nearly as arduous as it used to be. Since Bereshit doesn't list kosher birds or skin diseases, most of the words are familiar (except for some tongue-twisters like "I will greatly increase your anguish and your pregnancy,"El-ha'ishah amar harbah arbeh yitsbonech veheronech" [3:16]), and I can predict almost all the trop patterns. I still practice everything a million times, and don't trust my memory even when I know it backwards, but I continue to get a little bit calmer.

Before the universe springs into existence, however, we try to hold the gates open just an inch wider tomorrow morning at Hoshanah Rabbah. I look forward to beating those lulavim to a pulp and then downing some etrog schnapps as we survey the damage, an interesting tradition at my synagogue.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

738. Rosh Hashanah 5769, part 2

(Continued from here.)

On the second morning of Rosh Hashanah I was at the church, in imposing company--the rabbi with the beautiful voice, who pretty much saved my life (or at least my sanity) the year I had laryngitis, and the cantor, who was leading Musaf. Even though they are the two nicest, kindest, and gentlest people on the planet, their presence made me a little nervous. (I guess I haven't entirely gotten over myself.) This was the first time since the Annus Horribilis (to paraphrase Queen Elizabeth) that I helped lead in this particular combination. I could see the cantor, who sat in the congregation while I sang, every time I looked up from the mahzor. (He was at the Very Big Fancy Theater the day before, as well, but safely beyond my field of vision.) Not that I expected to see any expression of horror on his face, but it was relief when I did not. All went well, although I was very tired from the day before, and imagined I overcompensated by singing HaMelekh with too much drama, which left me less energy for everything else, causing some prayers to fizzle out like used balloons instead of soaring as they should. But I think this is all in my head. I struggled to give all of myself, but also found and grabbed on tightly to the wave of energy in the room, the magic floating laser beam of strength coming from those with whom I prayed, and sounded just fine.

I see now why I couldn't write the account of these Yamin Nora'im in chronological order, as I have over the past few years. I could think about the beginning, and the feeling of coming home, only after examining the end, and how I knew I was in the right place as I sang. The line from Handel's Messiah (and Malachi 3) comes to mind: "For he is like a refiner's fire." Maybe God burned out the dross, all the noise of preparation and nerves that got in the way, and left me with fewer obstacles in the way of understanding this experience. I don't yet, but perhaps the door is open.

I didn't do enough work before these holy days. I felt spiritually underprepared, my list of where I missed the mark long and uncategorized. I was overwhelmed, and didn't know where to begin to pray. But Yom Kippur emptied me just the same--I do now feel new and cleansed--although frayed edges remain, as always. I've forgiven myself for not being ready. I'll do better next year, or maybe just fail in different places. A little atoning goes a long way, I think, and at least I know my song reached somewhere new.

The buildup to the Yamim Nora'im is great, and the aftermath abrupt--the week always seems like a fleeting shadow, as in the Unetane Tokef. I wish I could better understand the journey as it happens, see through that shade, but what's really important happens on the other side. Now that I struggle so much less to let the music speak words I cannot, I'm slowly learning that singing is the same--a means and not the end, a path but not the destination.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

737. Rosh Hashanah 5769, part 1

Back to Rosh Hashanah: This year it felt like the seder where (somewhat to your surprise) all the relatives get along perfectly, no one drops a dish, and the room is full of love and great food. Whatever happened last year during Minha managed to stick--I could hit those high notes without a struggle, and breath and phrasing came easily. I'm sure the revelation was in my head and not my lungs: I finally got over myself, at least for now. The experience seemed not nearly as complex as I've made it to be these past four years.

I began to warm up at 6:30AM assuming, as is usually the case, that I would sound like a frog at such as early hour. But perhaps I really sang in my sleep, rather than just dreaming I did--after a half hour I was able to make sounds fit for public consumption. On the first morning I was at the Very Big, Fancy Theater, a three-mile walk. Last year it seemed like an endless trek; now I was able enjoy a leisurely stroll, and watch with sympathetic and gleeful detachment as the city woke up and stressed out. Once again I arrived way too early, but the place was already bustling; the musicians had a sound check at 8AM. So I sat in the Green Room for awhile, feeling useless but calm as everyone ran around, and then moved to the dressing room and watched on a stage monitor as the rabbi and cantor, with gymnastic flair, re-rolled a Torah scroll. (Which seemed Just Wrong, even to my highly gadgeted self; sifrei Torah should be witnessed in person.)

And then we walked onto the stage to begin Shaharit, and as the sound technician in the back turned dials and knobs I could hear a version of my voice change slowly until it matched loud and clear to what was in my head. I felt like I was exactly where I should be. My job this time around seemed to be about digging deeper into words and sounds I knew so well in order to transmit new discoveries as I found them. I have no idea if I did, but I knew my voice was full of conviction and questions.

(To be continued.)

736. Sukkot 5769

Hag Sameach! Every year I get a little closer to understanding Sukkot, truly feeling it in my bones. Maybe the holiday would be more meaningful if I lived where I could spend a week sleeping in the elements and raw air, or eating food from the new harvest... but today I looked up at the schach on the roof of my synagogue's sukkah (which is in the alleyway behind a church) and, instead of stars, saw the newly-washed clothing of guests at the homeless shelter hanging from a line. Although a city may not be the right setting for this holiday, that was a perfect symbol of a fragile, temporary home, and a reminder to be happy right where I am. And I was, singing Hallel, lingering over lunch with friends, enjoying the rare luxury of an away message on my email that I was closed for business. The breast-beating of Yom Kippur was particularly painful this year (one friend told me she put off praying for herself and instead plead for the entire country); Sukkot, in contrast, was a big joyful breath.

The rabbi offered a teaching at services yesterday morning: The numerical value of the letters in the word "lulav" is the same as in "chai" (life). So, suggests the Sfat Emet, the life for which we pray on Yom Kippur is now ours to shake up just like a lulav. I hope this coming year will shake me in a good way, not to loosen the foundation but a tilt just big enough to let me see from a different perspective.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

735. Right before Yom Kippur, 5769

Yom Kippur rehearsal

I emerged blinking in the bright sunlight from the dark Sanctuary last Sunday afternoon after my rehearsal and wandered smack into a street fair. ("Yom Kippur rehearsal?" wondered a friend. "Do you practice fasting, as well?" No, but judging by the amount of Chinese food I had for dinner that evening, one might think so.) High Holy Day week is also street fair season on the Upper West Side, always delightful and sometimes bordering on mystical. Once again I wove in and out of knots of people eating arepas and chimichangas; inspecting discount Chinese rugs and Indian handbags and African earrings; stopping to hear a Cuban mariachi band or try on a sweater; and I wanted to hug them all, a ridiculous wave of love for every single person, dog and roasted-corncob-dripping-with-butter-on-a-stick in my city. Maybe it was because I knew I wasn't the only sinner on Broadway, as we all joined in gluttony and coveting just as the Vidui advises we should not.

Or maybe it was because the rehearsal ran late, so I had no choice but wait for the cantor himself to rehearse Kol Nidre while I tried to look nonchalant. The rest of the Upper West Side was running around scrounging for bargains, thinking they were the lucky ones--but only I got to listen to the closest sound to the voice of God, over and over again. (I got to hear him on Rosh Hashanah, as well, which usually doesn't happen with all the hazzanim moving from service location to location--and he heard me, too, a bit nerve-wracking. Both mornings felt a little like a master class with the entire Jewish people observing from the the upper rows. But I seem to have passed, for now.)

A few days later I came back home from the Kol Nidre service still drowning in sounds of boundless strength embraced by compassion, and got right into bed because I had to be awake at 6:30 the next morning--but the year's worth of transgressions wouldn't stop bouncing around in my brain. The best way I could think to relax was with a little puzzle game on my iPhone, which I knew wasn't exactly kosher. It felt OK, though--more like meditation, repetitive, numbing and ultimately healing if it managed to keep me calm. Not that I have any idea what God wants, but I figured my good night's sleep was on His list, and so He wouldn't mind if I pushed all the little pieces together in rows while trying to refrain from conscious thought.

I'd been playing this game rather addictively for a few weeks. My highest score was 300,000 points, a number attained after lengthy rumination about strategy and tilting technique. But I decided to ignore all that, since I wanted to keep the day holy in spirit if not letter. My game would become one big digital "om": tilt, click, ping, tilt, click, ping as my brain emptied, readying itself for better things to come.

The little bomb exploded; the game was over. I looked at my score: 976,852, three times higher than my former greatest achievement. Cool. Maybe God really was OK with this particular sin and (were I a believer in that sort of communication) was trying to tell me that the year would start out just fine.


The rest of Rosh Hashanah to follow after Sukkot. (So soon? But I was just wallowing in endless guilt--now I get to be happy and celebrate the harvest? Amazing.) Wish everyone a sweet and bountiful holiday.

734. Yom Kippur afternoon 5769

This year my running account of the (amazing, intense, transformative) yamim nora'im will go backwards, because the last parts won't stop replaying in my mind's eye.


Yom Kippur afternoon

The day has changed abruptly from partly cloudy to sunny, warm as a July afternoon, and I try to stay in the the shade as I trek, exhausted, back up Broadway so I can lie down before Minha. My friend C., who didn't lead services and so has an ounce or two more energy, runs ahead. She keeps turning back to find me, like my cats in the morning as I'm en route to the kitchen--you can do it! You have to, we need you.

My apartment is cool and quiet, and I lay in bed for a few minutes thinking of how I will soon be just a few inches away from the Torot when I turn to the Ark and proclaim that Aaron carried them in battle. Imagining I'm singing to the scrolls always feels a little idolatrous; singing at them, rude. Maybe a better metaphor is with them, joining their silent words with my louder ones so the letters can jump into my notes. I force myself awake after a few minutes and rehearse the beginning phrases, splash some water on my face (technically not allowed, but I have to--maybe next year my flesh and sweat glands will be as strong as my spirit), and then C. and I walk a slow, blissfully downhill mile back to services.

I'm at the synagogue itself for the end of the Yom Kippur, the first time ever. I've always been at the church or various theaters at the critical tekiyah gadol moment, never less than glorious and with an abundance of friends and community. But the synagogue is smaller and crowded, and filled with more of my laughter and tears. I hear those echoes from the minute I walk in and try to sneak into the Secret Rabbi Room without bumping into people I know, but they see me anyway and give me big smiles. I'm home. On the other side of the door the rabbi sinks into the couch, as if gathering together his remaining bits of strength like the corners of a tallit in anticipation of a last burst to come. The musicians, who have scarcely stopped making music for a minute since sunrise, enter one by one with instruments, oud, guitar, cello, strapped to their backs and arms like outsized tefillin, radiant and looking like they haven't yet expended a calorie. I am exhausted but not depleted, and not at all hungry. (This is the easiest fast I've ever had, despite the logistical error of a salty turkey sandwich the evening before.) I feel empty as a tall glass drained in one gulp, having hours ago run out of words to beg and promise, but I think God understands my songs just the same. I am no less terrified of the answers than in past years, but it's OK--I'm standing in the right place to ask the questions. This is the first Yom Kippur that I've really believed it's no mistake I'm at the bima, and I hear that certainty in my voice. At every Amidah I pray to face the rest of life with the same kind of sound.

This bima is smaller than at the church or theater, and we stand shoulder to shoulder in front of the Ark as it opens. The curtain is stuck--we hold our breath--and then I hear the cue and begin to sing. It's like a slap in the face--wake up, the morning never really ended--time is short, but it's ours to use. Hear me, I plead, feeling the warmth of a thousand people in my family who fill every inch of the Sanctuary, each crevice of golden and dark red ornaments on the wall, and every space in my heart. I want to use myself up so there's nothing left at the end except the breath of those sounds. I am ecstatic and also terrified of what's to come, all I can't know. I keep feeling my heart race, but it slows down when I start to sing. Whatever God has in store will be fine as long as I can remember the echoes in this room.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

733. My cousin, part 2

(Continued from here.)

One hot August afternoon, I checked my answering machine.

“Hello?” said an unfamiliar, twangy voice. “This is the Family Research Bureau in Utah, regarding your cousin, Jerome. Please call back at your earliest convenience.” He left a phone number. Then a dial tone.

I stared at the phone. Shaking, I dialed. Jerry, it seemed, had died a year ago in San Francisco and the small amount of his veteran’s benefits, which had ended up at a company that specialized in tracking down relatives of lonely people who were outlived by their bank balances, had found their way to me.

I looked out the window at the crowds going to lunch and was sad, which startled me. Jerry had long ago faded to a wisp of a thought in my awareness, the tallit bag hidden and buried beneath winter sweaters. Most of my family, these days, existed only as images with bent corners in photo albums and there, or among the anonymous people walking down the street, I had always imagined Jerry would remain.


It was a month later, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. For most of my adult life I had been Jewish in name only, not caring much for a God that left me with hundreds of dollars a year in burial plot maintenance bills. But at the urging of a friend who thought it would be a good way to meet guys, I’d recently joined a synagogue, one rich in music, joy and community. At first I was wary; I had forgotten how to be part of something larger. Gradually I came to love it, and trust in its permanence, and watched my life grow less tentative and more intertwined with others as a result. As I walked to holiday services that morning, I thought of my first connections, my family and the stories from so long ago, and remembered the questions I still had about Jerry. What day did he die? I wondered. I had never asked.

But a few days later, before I could call Utah for the answer, I received an envelope of legal documents. Jerry had been homeless, I read. According to a court report, “He has not likely bathed in years. The social worker stated: ‘He is bright (although very irrational) and has social graces….’ We have not included details about the condition in which his body was found, as it is very graphic.” My tears stained the photocopies as I recognized the kind, lost boy from the back of my mind. He died in his room the previous September, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah—the same day, exactly one year later, that I would wonder when to say Yizkor for Jerry and remember his life in prayer along with the rest of our family.

It took me one more year, until the second day of the next Rosh Hashanah, to take Jerry’s tallit from the small velvet bag and wrap it around myself for the first time, and so join with my community in yet another way. It was an unfamiliar sensation, a nice one, and reminded me how he would gingerly hug me goodbye, the embrace of a feather blown about however the world decreed. The Jewish tradition is to be buried in one’s tallit but now, instead, I would rest his memory on my shoulders every time I wore it. And the others, my aunts and uncles, my mother and father, like the fringes bundled together and tied tightly at its corners, would never be far away.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

732. My cousin, part 1

No, I'm not sitting here blogging on Rosh Hashana, but set two posts to appear automatically today and tomorrow. Tomorrow is the yahrzeit of my cousin Jerry, and here's a short essay I wrote about him a few years ago. It seemed a fitting day to share his memory, may it be a blessing, with the wider universe.



On Sundays we’d pile into the’67 Chevy and head to one of my uncles’ interchangeable apartments—musty furniture, plastic slipcovers, tassled lamps. I was the only niece, and all my aunts and uncles were much older. Everyone complained about sciatica and arthritis, and I had no one to talk to except my cousin Jerry, who was sweet but said little. When I was 9, he had just come back from a year of fighting in Vietnam. He’d sit on the other side of the room in a heavy chair and smile shyly; sometimes we’d play gin rummy. I imagined that his silence accompanied wise thoughts, as he absorbed without complaint all the shrill laughter and babka-filled kisses that swirled around us. There were always whispers, rumblings: Jerry was Not Right. “It’s the war,” said my mother. “Who the hell knows what went on over there?”

One Sunday we were late. My father paced in front of our apartment door as I was getting zipped and swathed into layers of clothing, as if Brooklyn were the North Pole. The phone rang. My mother ran over and picked up the receiver, and after a moment I saw her body seem to get smaller, her eyes wider.

“What do you mean?” she yelled into the receiver. “How could someone just disappear?” She leaned into the doorway, and I thought she might fall.

“Are we going or not?” my father demanded. “Jerry’s missing,” she answered, in almost a whisper.


My mother and Jerry’s father tried to find him, keeping a few private investigators gainfully employed. They determined he was in San Francisco; beyond that, no clue. Thirty years passed, and I paid the price of having old relatives: my aunts and uncles died, and then my parents. Jerry’s few belongings, including a small, blue velvet bag emblazoned with a frayed, gold Star of David, ended up in a corner of my bottom drawer. Inside were the accoutrements of male Jewish adulthood: a prayer book and a tallit, a prayer shawl, “Pure Silk” embroidered white on white. Except for the picture in my mind of soft eyes and dark hair where everyone else’s was gray, nothing else remained of my cousin.

(Continued here.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

731. Song

I walked in a few minutes late to Shabbat morning services this past week. I flipped through the siddur to find the page, and my eyes landed on these lines:

A Song for Shabbat
It is good to acclaim the Lord,
to sing Your praise, exalted God.

to proclaim Your love each morning,
to tell of Your faithfulness each night,

to the music of the lute and the melody of the harp.
--Psalm 92

and I realized I didn't need any other words. All I had to say was there: Thank you. Please hear me. Accept my music. Later on, during the Shema, I sat in silence and tried to imagine myself with eyes closed in the company of a few hundred people at any other public space in New York City. Only in a Sanctuary full of open hearts would I do such a daring thing, and trust that my song and sighs would keep me safe while I listened for whatever God wanted me to hear.

I pray this Rosh Hashanah that only good sounds come our way, and that each of us can add to the joyful noise. (A great place to start: this wonderful music of the Jews of Uganda; scroll to the bottom of the page to hear some samples from the album.)

Shanah Tovah!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

730. Arc

I got back a few hours ago from my second of two High Holy Day rehearsals.

It felt very different than before. The music is in my breath and bones; I always knew it well, but the little crevices are now filled. Singing Shaharit this afternoon was like a deep friendship where you finish the other person's sentences and roll your eyes at their flaws, but always stick around with love and laughter. I was almost there last year, but we were still too polite. Now, the fifth time around, I can relax and wait for the other--the congregation, musicians, the very sound in the room--to give an expected answer, rather than be surprised by the response.

My concentration also seems to have deepened, for better or worse, and a few times this afternoon I had little sense of where I was, or even why. (I walked out of the Sanctuary thinking I had to get ready for Shabbat, and then remembered it was Sunday. Maybe I'm just tired, or starting to lose my mind.) But at the same time I was also more in control, completely aware of the flow and energy required and able to modulate it as needed.

At least I think I can do these things--once it happens for real, all bets are off. I didn't expect this feeling of reaching a new, unexplored level, and can only imagine the twists and turns ahead. It reminds me of being on a swing, my favorite activity as a kid, when I would hold on with all my strength and go as high as possible, always in control yet never so. I'd tilt my head back at the very top of the arc and see the world upside-down--still the same old sky, but also new and different.

Today also tilted in a better direction since this morning's post: my friend and I made up; my other friend's aunt will be OK; I stopped procrastinating and sat down to write; no cold at the moment, knock wood; and I'm set for Tuesday dinner, thanks to a roving farmer's market that practically slapped me in the face at my doorstep. Worried about food? said God. Relax, I'll bring it here. I now have an amazing apple pie from a Southern-style bakery in Harlem, and perfect kosher pickles from the Lower East Side, so that my friends and I can welcome in a wonderfully sweet (and sour) new year.

729. Danger!

And now for something completely different, since a good night's sleep puts the holiday in a new, cheerier light. Before I begin the day's 47 million tasks, including two day's worth of work, a rehearsal, recording a student's Torah portion, learning one of my own, laundry, and shopping and cooking, I offer the following:

Caloric overload is not the only physical danger of this holiday. During services this past Shabbat, I thought of a few others:

8. Tallit-fringe strangling. With great humility, I must take credit for saving someone's life last week (or, at least, the integrity of the fabric of her blouse) after she kissed the end of the traveling Torah scroll with the edge of her tallit as it made its way around the Sanctuary--and her fringes got caught on the breastplate. The procession kept moving as my pew-mate scrambled to avoid being dragged down the aisle with the entire bar mitzvah family. I quickly reached over to achieve detanglement. "I guess I was trying to become attached to the Torah," she observed afterwards.

7. Accidental extinguishing of the ner tamid, the perpetual light. It happened a few years ago on Yom Kippur, and we seem to have escaped any immediate, dire repercussions--but in the bigger picture, who really knows.

6. Hagbah (the lifting of the Torah scroll during services) catastrophe. Traditionally, or maybe it's custom or heresay, I'm not sure, all present are supposed to fast for 40 days if a scroll is dropped. This is even worse if the dropping happens on Yom Kippur, when we're already very hungry. A few years ago, during the High Holy Days I Would Like to Blot Out Because I Had Laryngitis, the cantor--who also had laryngitis--was standing on the side with his baby daughter sound asleep on his shoulder just as the the Torah lifter began to sway precariously. The cantor literally leaped up to the bimah and caught both man and scroll in one balletic fell swoop, the baby never blinking an eye. An awe-inspiring moment that aged me about ten years.

5. Tripping on the bimah on the way up to an aliyah. Not funny. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah a few years ago, an elderly man fell and lost consciousness as he tried to climb the two small steps. (Now there are big strips of white tape outlining those steps.)

4. Death during prayer. Much worse than tripping, also not funny. This happened at a synagogue I attended ages ago, causing its moribund status to ascend to the next level.

3. "Please rise vertigo" from all that standing and sitting. Who needs the gym?

2. My synagogue has a balcony. The balcony has a railing. People in the first row of the balcony rest their prayer books on the railing. People in the first row also occasionally stretch, get up to put their coats on, etc. In tenth grade I think I learned the mathematical formula for determining the velocity of a falling object. By the time the book reaches the ground, or someone's head, it will probably have the force of a large locomotive. Please save the life of a ground-floor congregant this year and stash your mahzor on the seat. Thank you.

and finally:

1. Laryngitis. Let's not go there again. But it will forever remain, for me, as the deadliest of High Holy Day hazards.

Wishing everyone a panic-free day of holiday preparations.

728. Built in

Today at services the rabbi noted that Parashat Nitzavim, always read during the week before Rosh Hashanah, contains many instances of the word "teshuvah." This intrigued the ancient rabbis (of course), who interpreted it as proof that teshuvah came before absolutely everything:

"Before the world was created... God began to trace (the foundations of) the world but it would not stand. They told a parable: To what is the matter like? To a king who wishes to build a palace for himself. If he had not traced the earth its foundation, its exits and entrances, he does not begin to build. Likewise the Holy One was tracing (the plans of) the world but it did not remain standing until God created repentance."
--Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, Chapter 3

And because teshuvah is elemental to our existence,

"Teshuvah is always present in our heart."
--Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Kook

OK, so we know that change is possible--but that doesn't mean we know how to make it happen. We are overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, or trapped by circumstance. One solution, suggested the rabbi, is to remember that we are creative beings. Every small choice and new idea is an act of teshuvah--of changing our current situation into a new one. Instead of feeling crushed by expectations at this time of year, we can parse them into smaller pieces and keep in mind that we are not passive observers of our own lives--that the imperative to do, act, and change is built into us all.

These were very comforting words to hear this morning. Again, as every year, I feel woefully unprepared to face the truth of how I missed the mark. I fear I will pretend to look God in the eye while sweeping everything under the psychic rug, so to speak. I am annoyed: with a friend who let me down, with myself for hiding and procrastinating. I am afraid: for the world, for a friend's aunt who just had a stroke, for the 1% chance that I'll catch a cold between now and Tuesday. I am in good company: with everyone else facing the fact this Rosh Hashanah that they're human, and change is really hard.

I agree that we live by small steps, and they all count. I like the idea that our very nature is to move forward. I pray that the energy of a few hundred people in a room thinking and singing about how to do this will give us all the strength to take two steps when we thought only one was possible.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

727. Hidden

This week's parasha, Ki Tavo, begins as follows:

Vehayah ki-tavo el-ha'arets asher Adonay Eloheycha noten lecha nachalah...
When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you as a heritage...

"Vehayah"--when--a straightforward word. But Hassidic commentators, noted the rabbi last night at services, gave it great emphasis as a "key to the future." Why? The rabbi didn't understand the interpretation until she noticed that "vehayah" is spelled vav, hey, yod, hey. A little rearranging and you get the name of God--yod, hey, vav, hey--hidden where we least expect it, a reminder that in this month of Elul our task is to search for God in places we have forgotten or overlooked. God is always present, but sometimes we need to reorder the letters that make up our own souls in order to figure this out.

As she spoke, I thought of the two yahrzeits that always take me by surprise on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In 1999 I learned of the death of a cousin the year before. He had fought in Vietnam, come back a different person, and disappeared when I was 9 years old; my family hired a private investigator, who found him in San Francisco. But my cousin refused all contact, even after the deaths of his mother and, a few years later, his father, my mother's brother. By the time I grew up, all that remained of his memory was a tallit bag in the bottom of a drawer. (There's much more to this story, which I wrote a few years ago and published in a small anthology. Perhaps I'll post it here in a week and a half). Three years ago, I came home from services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah to a message on my answering machine that my cousin Bunny had died, a tiny, gutsy force of perpetual energy who trained dogs and loved animals with a fierce passion (and adopted my 18-year-old cat Irving when I was shell-shocked after the death of my mother, and introduced him to macho, calico Figaro, who convinced Irving to come out of the closet both literally and figuratively so the two could spend their golden years together in feline-cohabiting bliss). Although these two people were not part of my daily life, their deaths left big holes in the fabric of a family whose few remaining fringes I hold tight.

As the rabbi spoke, I also remembered the yahrzeits of my mother: Adar 14, Purim (in years that aren't leap years); and father, Thanksgiving (in 1990, but the association always remains). I used to be angry that so many holidays bore the shadow of death for me. Why couldn't my cousins and parents have left this earth on boring, normal days? But then I thought about those particular holidays--happy, festive, full of the promise of new beginnings and connections to community as we come together and sing Sheheheyanu, laugh at ourselves, wear new (or funny) clothing, plan for the future. As in "vehayah," God was hidden in those days to make sure I would think of people I loved when I laughed, and never be alone when I cried.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

726. Very soon

I can scarcely believe that Selihot is in two days. Every year I've had fewer and fewer rehearsals leading up to the High Holy Days, and so the discipline of preparation has been shifting back to my own responsibility. Back when I started this journey in 2004--or, rather, when I was pushed happily but uncomprehendingly onto the road--I spent many months thinking, dreaming, and breathing Shaharit. (Ne'ila and Minha followed soon after.) I had no choice but to get ready with all my body and spirit. Now the melodies are in my bones; all I've had to do for the past month is review, every couple of days, the parts where my voice balks at what it's supposed do. The range is still a little high, even though I'm now more accustomed to singing those notes. I've learned not to worry, because I know I'll be just fine after waking up at 6AM and warming up for two hours. (I'll be singing at the same number of services as last year, despite my unfounded doubts.) I have a rehearsal with one ensemble next Friday, and another the following Monday. And that's it.

But I don't think I've done enough of the other kind of preparation--the heshbon hanefesh part, accounting of my soul for the past year. I've taken stabs at it, made a few changes, fell backwards. It's slow going, as always. I'm remembering to be kind to myself, and hoping this compassion and patience will spill over into my dealings with the rest of the world. This week I revisited Beginning Anew, a collection of essays about the Yamim Nora'im from a feminist perspective. A friend lent it to me four years ago and I've been consumed with guilt every subsequent Yom Kippur, when I remember that I never read or returned it. This year will be different. Ever since I took part in a discussion group about Engendering Judaism, a book exploring the challenges of a gender-expansive view of Jewish prayer, the idea of a women's approach to Judaism has felt much less awkward. (And I've felt less awkward admitting that it once seemed so.) My religious community comes very close to being completely gender-neutral in all aspects of philosophy and ritual which, paradoxically, is not always the best approach. The rest of the world is not always so tolerant, and sometimes we need to celebrate the differences that were once mistaken for inequality. Just because they no longer are doesn't mean we should ignore them.

These are concepts I wouldn't usually explore; I hope struggling with them in this week before I stand on the bima will teach me something new about myself.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

725. Existential GPS

As I've said too often, I love my iPhone. But it's not perfect: some apps crash, the calendar isn't as good as on my trusty old Treo, and it hasn't yet learned how to copy and paste. That's OK; I'm patient. It's young, brilliant, and lovely, not yet seasoned but full of potential. I can wait.

It is, however, a bit confused. At certain times of day, from a few different locations in my apartment, it thinks I'm in Texas. Not just anywhere in Texas, but a very specific spot on Town-to-Market Road outside of Houston. It's offered up the name of the closest pharmacy to Town-to-Market Road, and told me there are no restaurants in a 5-mile radius. According to the satellite photo on the GPS Google Map, there's nothing much in that spot except a road, a field, and what look like storage buildings.

I wonder: is someone on Town-To-Market Road outside of Houston at this very moment checking a new iPhone after a long day of work hauling farm equipment, and wondering why it thinks she should go see a movie at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas or check out a hot new restaurant featuring photos of clowns on the wall?

Are we ever really where we think we are?


I am not the only one pondering the philosophical implications of the iPhone. Here's Rabbi Marc Wolf of JTS on Parashat Ekev:

Since I am a self-professed “techno-junkie,” it took considerable restraint to wait the year for the second-generation iPhone to be released. ...


On another matter: Matt Damon speaks for me. Bravo.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

724. Belatedly

I meant to write on 9/11, as I have for the past few years. I'm learning that the death of buildings and memories is not really much different than the death of a loved one. Time seems to dull pain, and then it all comes back with the sound of a breath, a certain glint of sunlight.

I planned to go to morning minyan and say the Mourner's Kaddish. Instead I chose to lay in bed and think about good and bad parts of that day--there really was goodness amidst unimaginable agony, as I grew closer to friends and community and watched everyone try to help each other even as we thought the world was ending. I also remembered how my mother insisted we visit the Towers in person as soon as they were built; same for the Citicorp (now Citigroup ) Center. She wasn't otherwise an architecture buff, but delighted in these new and unusual additions to the skyline--her skyline. There was an urgency about seeing them, as if we had to claim them as soon as possible in order to retain our ownership of the city. Did we ever get to the oddly Chippendale-corniced AT&T (now Sony) Building? It opened during a year about which I recall very little, when my mother was in and out of the hospital and I was in a constant haze. I remember we spoke about it, and have an image of myself in the building lobby, very sad. I don't think we got there together.

But the Towers in my mind's eye still make me smile, as I see my mother standing in wonder on the roof deck.

I appreciated this quasi-Biblical account of the last seven years, a little forced but also profound:

In the Seventh Year

In Judaism, seven is a number of rest--for the earth and living beings each Shabbat, for crops in seven-year cycles, the number before covenant (brit milah, circumcision, on the eighth day of life). I pray that this year we can continue to heal, and begin a new cycle of promises of love rather than hatred. And that this anniversary can fall into a rhythm and melody that manages to comfort even while searing an eternal memory:

9/11 Chant

(HT to Kol Ra'ash Gadol for reminding me of this rewriting of Eikha [Lamentations] by Rabbi Irwin Kula.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

723. A cliff, part 2

(Continued from here.)

I ditched work for the afternoon (way too easy to do when you're self-employed), sang it over and over and over again for the rest of the day, and then again at dawn the next morning. I sang it too many times. I knew I knew it, but didn't believe myself. I worked myself into a state of near-panic and barely made it to services because of, shall we say, physical issues. I was at once confident, angry at my irrationality, and sure that catastrophe would strike once I reached the bima. And equally sure I'd do a perfect job. Stage fright is no fun. I was so confused that I didn't know what I was thinking.

I did well. And when I sang, to my surprise, I understood once again that the breath within me was shared. My nerves fell away and I felt stronger than ever, certain that if I missed the mark, if I needed to be propped up or slapped into sensibility while chanting, or at any other time in life, I would always find an open door leading me back home. About to lose my balance at the edge of a cliff, I was in the world's safest place. I wanted to run away, yet never leave.

I don't understand why the act of memorizing a few pages of Hebrew can tie me into such metaphysical knots. For days afterwards I was completely spent, exhausted on all levels. Last Shabbat I chanted part of Parashat Shoftim, harder to learn than Va'ethanan, and barely broke a sweat. Maybe I needed to drive myself to the edges of intestinal fortitude in order to understand how much more pleasant it is to remain calm--or maybe, sometimes, I need to be a little nuts in order to understand what and why I am singing. Either way, I will keep hiking up that cliff.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

722. A cliff, part 1

How do I work this thing?... Oh, right, just type. So here I am again, trying to steer myself to the proper course as we approach the end of Elul. I've missed writing, but have had little space for it in my brain. I've also been indulging my outer life more than my inner: finally snagged an iPhone and am playing with it constantly, bought a new couch, got rid of of the old one (a very New York story, post to come). Along with introspection, silly stuff is also necessary to maintain balance in life. But I am definitely still here.

At services two weeks ago, the rabbi reminded us that the letters in the name of this month, Elul, are also the first letters of "Ani dodi v'dodi li:" "I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine." He suggested we remember that we are our own beloveds--that in heshbon hanefesh, the inventory of our year, we pay attention to what we love in ourselves, and how we can nurture and grow these traits. And take note of the parts we don't love, so we can leave them behind.

Last month I confronted both poles, which I must admit is another reason (aside from crushing loads of deadline-oriented work) that I haven't written. I haven't wanted to put in the time to digest, articulate, and understand. I had signed up for a whopping bit of chanting, a column and a third. Most of this I read three years ago, so wasn't worried. I was kind of excited about doing it again, in fact, this time calmly and with more confidence.

On Friday afternoon I got an email from the cantor: Would you like to read the haftarah, as well? It was a cool one: "Nahamu, nahamu," the first haftarah of consolation before the High Holy Days. I was about to say yes, but was drowned out by a little voice from the logical side of my brain: it's a bit too much to cram. (The musical part comes quickly, but I still stumble over Hebrew.) I thanked him, and said I didn't think I'd have enough time. OK, he replied, I guess I'll keep trying to ask around. I could almost hear the big sigh between the lines of his email: Someone backed out at the last minute and I can't find anyone else. You've never learned anything this fast before, but I know you can do it. Pretty please.

I knew that chanting this particular haftarah would help heal me from the searing images of Tisha be-Av. I wanted to do it. I read it through a few times, decided to trust in the cantor's trust, which never let me down before, and said yes.

(Continued here.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

721. Proud

It's been awhile, I know. I'm still here!--still chanting, being overwhelmed, collecting experiences, wondering, muddling enjoyably through. And drowning in work. I feel like I've been in a cave for the past few weeks, emerging thirstily on Shabbat but otherwise gasping for air. Not that I don't like my job, but it's been a bit much. My brain is full. I will return to some semblance of normalcy in the very near future, if only because the words on my fingertips are about to explode; I need to write them down soon, or else.

Meanwhile, I had to come here to mark this night, and note that I'm proud of my country for the first time in at least eight years. I don't know if he's right about everything--he's still a politician, after all--but Barack Obama is our best hope for a future. As he spoke about watching the astronauts with his grandfather when they returned from space, I remembered staring at a grainy, black-and-white TV with my mother as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. She made sure I understood the importance of witnessing a moment when the world changed. She would have so enjoyed tonight's speech.

More to come very soon.