Thursday, January 31, 2008

615. Safe

Sign, entrance to the Israel Museum (another photo from this summer's trip). Good words for any door, anywhere in the world, and imagine if banned items included ideas as well as actual physical objects?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

614. End times

Off topic, but this has been bugging me: Two years ago I got annoyed with the nonsensical slogan of a nearby condo development. That building was built, and its overpriced apartments are selling like hotcakes even though they represent an impossible state in the space-time continuum ("Traditional Living Like Never Before").

Apparently the same copywriter found another job with the marketing staff of an even more luxurious building. I passed this frightening sign last week:

"21st Century Pre-War Residences"

Does the developer know something the rest of us do not? Should I be constructing a concrete bunker in my bedroom and stocking up on canned food? Will the Statue of Liberty topple before all the apartments are sold? Yikes.

(Note for those unfamiliar with Manhattan real-estate lingo: in sensible sentences, "pre-war" refers to apartments built before 1945.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

613. Not a mystical post

Every moment you're alive and breathing and can see light and hear music is a miracle. But some days, like today, are just days, not particularly beautiful, not bad by any standard, and then you find yourself at the end of the food chain of everyone else's truly bad day and forget about the miraculous part. But as soon as I got to my Hebrew class this evening, where we learned about the Masoretes and the Aleppo Codex and I discovered more words I recognized from sometime before, way deep in my cells, which had sat forever waiting to be unlocked by the magical key of verb forms--as soon as the act of learning woke me up--I realized I had no right to be annoyed.

I got in the the subway to go home, and when I emerged discovered it had rained in those fifteen minutes. The streets were slick and shiny and smelled of Chinese food, buses, and puddles in which children and dogs would jump tomorrow morning. I had a sudden desire to eat fruit, which always reminds me of springtime. I went into the deli and bought big chunks of pineapple, and pretended that the rain had transformed the entire city into something new.

Monday, January 28, 2008

612. Much

Like half the universe I'm reading Eat, Pray, Love, and enjoying the author's exuberant love affair with the Italian language. She declares her favorite word to be attraversiamo, "cross over to the other side," which rolls seductively off the tongue (and also happens to summarize her life story). My first favorite word in Hebrew, long before I knew what it meant, was oz (strength). I heard it every week as part of the blessing at the end of the Friday night service, but didn't care what it meant--just that it buzzed and lingered when I said it, as if the joy of the evening was trying to stick inside my mouth like taffy.

My current favorite word is from the Shema: m'odekha. It's usually translated as "might," as in the original Ugaritic, a pre-Biblical language. But me'od in Hebrew means "much." So m'odekha is, literally, "your muchness," as in

V'ahav'ta eit Adonai Elohekha b'khol l'vav'kha uv'khol naf'sh'kha uv'khol m'odekha.
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your muchness.

I think this is a perfect word to describe a relationship with God. God is not a fellow human, so prosaic emotions like love and hate can't really apply. We need a different language, one of awe and abundance, laughter and tears mixed together until they cease to have meaning, to describe the being together of God and humankind. "Muchness" is on the scale of the ocean and desert, so vast and unexplainable that it bypasses grammar, what you might sputter out if drunk or astonished and all other words fail. It sounds like something a child would say who doesn't yet have command of language, but we understand exactly.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

611. Dusty

Last night I went to a magnificent concert at St. Mary the Virgin, a jewel-box of a church smack in the middle of Times Square. Historically this is not a neighborhood where one would expect to find anyone or anything with "virgin" in its name--but St. Mary's has remained a fixture from the years of topless theaters all the way to today's Disney era. Tallis, Taverner, Tye... it's been awhile since I listened to early music, which used to be my breath and bread. I still shudder at perfectly tuned chords in glorious major keys, the floating trapeze of bell-clear sopranos, gentle tenor incantations, grounding forces of basses and altos.

Sometimes I miss singing those complex sounds, clear as glass. Although I couldn't name it at the time, I used to see God through that window, and loved last night's glimpse. But these days I need the dusty wilderness Voice of lower down on the mountain, where it's OK to go a little flat or lose the beat every once in awhile. I think ragged edges make the music enter one's heart even faster. Yesterday morning the Aseret HaDibrot, the "Ten Sayings," were chanted at my synagogue by a tiny teenager, dressed stylishly in black leggings and enormous tallit, with a voice that would have made the Mouseketeers proud. She was rock-solid in her reading, didn't miss a single vowel, and added some California-style uptalk to her phrasing, as well. Maybe this is what we really heard at Sinai, who knows. If any nation ever needed a cheerleader, it was the Israelites. You go, God!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

610. More tomorrow...

It's been a nice and long Shabbat, with an emphasis on long. More to come tomorrow. Meanwhile, a photo I took in Israel last summer of sunset in Old Yaffo.

Friday, January 25, 2008

609. Voices

I've been meaning to write about Psalm 99, which we read during Kabbalat Shabbat every Friday evening. A few weeks ago at services I got stuck on this line:

Our Sovereign loves lawful order, maintaining justice
and equity among the peoples of Jacob.

and got angry. Our Sovereign does not always maintain justice and equity. I'm sure He or She tries, and I'd be happy to sing about that--but we don't. We say with certainty what is, in a word full of poverty, war, and hunger, absolutely not the case.

But I wasn't annoyed enough at King David to write about this until tonight at the contemplative service, where we considered Yitro, this week's parasha (aka the Ten Commandments) and focused on the Voice of God as described in Psalm 99:

They obeyed Your decrees
You spoke to them in a pillar of cloud.

It was a long and frustrating week, and at services I wasn't really in the mood to think about Voices. I just wanted silence. Tonight's leaders took a different approach than usual, sharing beautiful commentary and poetry rather than chanting a verse or two and then sitting quietly. I tried to pray in the way suggested, to listen for that Voice, feel Revelation in my bones--but they never changed from words into meaning. I was unfortunately reminded of other synagogues in past lives where "thee" and "thou" translations in the siddur came across as a language more foreign than Hebrew. (The version of Psalm 99 that I linked to at the beginning of this post is a good example.) Tonight I needed the God of personal victories, of a ray of light on the sidewalk, one bird singing at 5AM.

During the Amidah I imagined myself in the middle of a mold, and the putty that encased me was God. I was like a baby safe and wrapped in swaddling clothes, but more so--I was defined by God's material, and my contours also defined God. Perhaps the part of Our Sovereign that hasn't succeeded in maintaining justice and equity is the aspect that mirrors me in this way--maybe if I did my part, God will succeed, as well.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

608. Done

A wonderful blogger linked to my site--thank you!--and I'm really enjoying her observations. On Tuesday she wrote about the difficulty of reading and interpreting spiritual texts in the context of actual life, and how the lines

Vayomer Elohim na'aseh adam betsalmenu kidemutenu
God said, "Let us make man with our image and likeness."

pose a particular challenge. The world of blogs is one big midrash factory, and her post got me thinking about those words and the ones immediately preceding, which I repeated over and over and over again last summer while preparing for Simhat Torah. In my Hebrew class (about which I've said little, since I'm always too busy doing homework), we've been navigating the stormy sea of verb forms. As I understand it, Biblical Hebrew has no past and future tenses; the closest it gets to those definite points of time and space are the perfect and imperfect tenses, which imply a conditional state and always leave the door a little bit open. (At this point I must add a disclaimer: I really don't know what I'm talking about. We're only 3/4 of the way through the textbook. Real Biblical scholars, please avert your eyes or laugh loudly as I offer the following ideas, which may be completely incorrect.)

The conversive (reversing) vav, that strange little letter which magically changes perfect and imperfect tenses to their opposites, further confuses the intent of words in the Bible. The conversive vav was originally a way to indicate sequence, and over a few thousand years morphed into a kind of past tense. Most completed actions described in the Torah use this construction rather than the perfect tense. The very beginning of the Bible employs both:

In the beginning God created heaven and earth.
Bereshit bara [perfect tense] Elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'arets.

The earth was without form and empty, with darkness on the face of the depths, but God's spirit moved on the water's surface.
Veha'arets hayetah tohu vavohu vechoshech al-peney tehom veruach Elohim merachefet [perfect tense] al-peney hamayim.

God said, "There shall be light," and light came into existence.
Vayomer [conversive vav formation] Elohim yehi-or vayehi-or [conversive vav formation].

God saw that the light was good, and God divided between the light and the darkness.
Vayar [perfect tense] Elohim et-ha'or ki-tov vayavdel [conversive vav formation] Elohim beyn ha'or uveyn hachoshech.

When God acts (speaks, makes light appear, divides), those words are formed with the conversive vav, a tense that embodies timelessness: it was the future, but now it's the past. So what really came first? Can a story told in mere human language describe the concept of creation with any accuracy? I doubt it. Maybe the conversive vav appears in these instances to remind us that we'll never even come close to understanding the sequence of events.

Other words are in the perfect tense: God saw, God's spirit hovered over the water, and of course, God created (bara). These verbs suggest a more stationery state of watching, waiting and, during creation... being God. Bringing the universe into existence strikes me as a verb state all its own, not comparable to any word describing plain old action. Although the perfect tense carries some doubt ("vayar" could mean "he had seen" or "he might have seen" as well as "he saw"), it has no whiff of a future time. The acts are rooted, immobile. They happened, and life began. Everything else (perhaps even the firmament dividing part, who knows) is commentary.

(Biblical scholars, I hope you're still averting your eyes. I don't know if any of this makes sense with respect to the rest of the creation story, and there may be very good grammatical reasons having to do with J, E, D, P et al to explain the use of those two past tense constructions. But it's been fun to speculate.)

So I agree with Claire Joy's observation that we've thrown a wrench into things by trying to re-make God in our image. The first line of the Torah is clear: God created without need of a conversive vav--it happened, done with, no question who's in charge here. The rest is up to us.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

607. Restlessness

So many blogging days in the year, so little time... especially on Wednesdays, when I leave my house before the crack of dawn and don't stop moving until long after the crack of nighttime. So for now, some wise words I heard this Sunday at a Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, first spoken by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in January, 1963 at the National Conference on Religion and Race:

"It is not enough for us to exhort the government. What we must do is to set an example, not merely to acknowledge African-Americans but to welcome them, not grudgingly but joyously, to take delight in enabling them to enjoy what is due to them. We are all Pharaohs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave of Pharaoh. It is horrible to be a Pharaoh.

Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?

Let there be a grain of prophet in every person!

Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally; not only publicly, but also privately, not only occasionally, but regularly.

What we need is the involvement of every one of us as individuals. What we need is restlessness, a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice."

(The Insecurity of Freedom, pp.96-98)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

606. Direct line

This past Shabbat morning the rabbi spoke about Parashat Beshallah and the Israelites' desire to meet God panim el panim, face to face. To reach for this kind of holiness is a worthy goal, he observed, but impossible: God, by definition, cannot be seen or understood. To say otherwise is to admit to idol worship.

I think I missed the point of this d’var Torah. I agree that anyone who swears to have discovered absolute truth is lying. But I don't believe we can pursue our dreams while imagining God as elusive or unknowable--even if, deep down, we believe this is the case. I prefer to tell myself a white lie and think of the God Who surrounds me, who accompanies all life at all times, as the one and only layer of bureaucracy. I want to believe in a direct line to that kind of strength. Whenever I need to anthropomorphize, I imagine a really, really important God in a big office at the end of a long corridor Who, despite a packed calendar, will nonetheless find an opening in the agenda for a meeting with me, mere human.

Once upon a time, the only way to know another deeply and honestly was in person. But now we have access other avenues of communication that let us meet over space and time, through words perhaps more carefully chosen than a face to face conversation will allow. I may never encounter God panim el panim, but my prayer is kind of like Skype or iSight--the comforting illusion of seeing God whenever I can provide the connection.

Monday, January 21, 2008

605. To dream

I live on a block with many restaurants, including a Hot and Crusty (faux-European-style bakery serving croissants and panini), and a McDonald's. The avenues west of this block of restaurants are upper middle-class, and get trendier by the minute. Around the corner is a youth hostel catering to authentic Europeans, and a boutique hotel stylish for being off the beaten tourist path.

The avenues east of this block are filled with low-income housing populated mainly by Hispanics and African-Americans.

I buy coffee and a bagel every morning at Hot & Crusty in the company of wide-eyed German- or French-accented backpackers (from the hostel and hotel), and bored, frazzled suits on their way to work. Sometimes I go to McDonald's at lunchtime for a fairly decent salad and stand on line behind darker-skinned patrons, students from local public schools, families with little kids, or senior citizens who sit for an hour to nurse a cup of tea.

I rarely see black people at Hot & Crusty. I rarely see white people at McDonald's. Prices are comparable at each restaurant, and both have ample seating and good coffee. Micky D's is actually a little shiner and fancier. The food is equally caloric (grease vs. butter). Why, I wonder, have many of their respective clientele self-selected--habit, custom, an expectation that one group is supposed to eat mainstream fast food and the other, a more pretentious version of same? Why doesn't everyone admit that the bad pizza at Hot & Crusty is as satisfying as the fries at McDonald's, and swap seats every once in awhile?

But one group looks through the front window and sees the other sitting at a table, recalls hundreds of years of stereotypes with barely a conscious thought, and assumes they are unwelcome... do not belong... are in danger. I know I am guilty of this as well, if not at my local McDonald's then in unfamiliar neighborhoods, or perhaps on the subway. I try to be aware of how these small choices can profoundly change the way we live with one another, and usually succeed. But sometimes I forget to think about anyone but myself.

As we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. z"l, I pray that his dreams continue to knock some sense into us all.

(More to come about a very interesting MLK Day event I attended on Sunday.)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

604. The secret

I believe I’ve cracked the secret to getting a seat at my local Starbucks. Here I lounge at 8:00AM while most of the Upper West Side is asleep, drinking good coffee and eating a stale bagel. (I should have stuck to the overpriced madeleines.) There are even some empty spots on the other side of the non-fat-milk-and-Splenda bar. (That it’s 20 degrees outside might also contribute to the lack of patrons). At surrounding tables are two college students doing homework, a man staring out the window, another who appears to be writing a letter, and a couple in neighboring comfy chairs, reading books rather than the expected sprawling layers of The New York Times, who occasionally reach out and stroke each other’s hands. I can’t see titles, but the books are hardcover and look serious.

Yesterday at services a woman got an aliyah in honor of her 10st birthday. 101! It boggles the mind. Did she last the century because of intervals of sitting and reflecting in coffee shops, or did she keep moving and never waste a second? A combination, I like to imagine (which gives me some hope of reaching the late 2000s). The rabbi recounted a story: Last week this woman went to the doctor, who pronounced her healthy. And she replied, “Thanks—but, you know, you’re not looking too good yourself.” I want to be her when I grow up.

9:12AM: Every seat is filled. I think I’ll grab my coffee and go back home to sit idly without having to hear a dozen overlapping conversations and Frank Sinatra singing “Strangers In The Night” into my left ear.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

603. The parasha of mistakes

Last Shabbat I learned to think of Bo as the parasha of mistakes.

Moshe really screwed up. He failed nine times to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites, noted the rabbi at services, yet kept persevering. How many of us would be so persistent, especially if we had to explain ourselves directly to God ("Um, just harden his heart for me one more time, OK?")

The words kaved, harden (as in "God hardened Pharaoh's heart") and kavod, honor, are from the same root, teaching that we can't ignore our mistakes, our rigid and rough places. They exist to be overcome, and in the process transform us into people like Moshe, worthy of honor. And there's hope for us all: according to the Kabbalists, the last syllable of the word "Paroh," when reversed, becomes "er," awakening.

On Shabbat morning we heard about an example of this kind of radical change: the Sulhita, a program that brings Arab and Israeli youth together for week-long encounters in the Israeli desert. In nature and through music, sports, and other shared activities, they have an opportunity to see each in a way that lenses of politics and religion will not allow. They learn that not everything they have been taught about the other is true.

Music, said our speaker, is one of the best tools for this kind of transformation. Just the thought of a lullaby we once knew as a child will make us smile; imagine if our enemy chose to learn and sing it for us. This is what children at the Sulhita experience as they listen to each other's songs and begin look into each other's hearts. They move past anger, fear and resentment and, slowly, struggle to find common ground.

I listened to this story and thought of my own insecurities, mistakes, and lessons learned as a child that I believe my parents did not mean to teach and which--in their honor, and with loving memory--I have worked hard to forget. As I grow more aware of my own places of kaved, inflexibility, bias, my song really does change, quite literally. I know I sound very different now than in the past; my voice is freer, willing and able to leap, engage, explore. But if I want to sing new music like the children at the Sulhita, I must acknowledge that I will sometimes have rocks in my mouth, like Moshe. Goals will turn into setbacks, answers into questions, and this leapfrog path forward will never end.

Friday, January 18, 2008

602. Then Moses sang...

Az yashir Moshe...
"Then Moshe sang..."

This is the beginning of the Song of the Sea, the ecstatic, triumphant, violent poem of praise (from this Shabbat's Torah portion, Beshallah) that accompanies the rush across Yam Suf, the ocean standing between Mitzrayim and freedom. "Az," said the rabbi at services, translates to "then"--a time in the past. But "yashir" is a future tense: "will sing." So these words do not mean "Then Moses sang," as usually translated, but rather "Then Moses will sing," which doesn't seem to make sense.

But it does: a clash of what has happened and what will happen describes perfectly the process of change. Nahshon makes that decisive first leap, but the Israelites wander lost and confused for decades before his action resolves. It takes time as well as courage, said the rabbi, to leave Mitzrayim, whatever narrow place in which we're stuck. Until we find our destination, we remain in a kind of twilight zone while we fully extract ourselves from the past. The rabbi wished us a journey much, much shorter than 40 years before we discover where we're meant to be, and the strength to jump in the water.

I marvel how some rabbis can read minds and know your question before you even ask it. I need that courage. I think I'm wandering, which really isn't unpleasant. But it would be nice to get to the other side.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

601. Two worlds

An interesting article in New York magazine about a woman who chose to join a contemplative religious order of one:
A Hermit of the Heart

Martha Ainsworth rides a bus into Port Authority from New Jersey at least three times a week, twice for work and once on Sunday to attend Mass at St. John’s in the Village. Like any good New Yorker, Martha tries to make use of her commute. As soon as she’s settled in her seat, she pulls out a rosary and begins to pray. By the time she has boarded the bus on a normal day, she’s already spent more than an hour in formal prayer and at a kind of devout study known as lectio divina. By the time she goes to bed, she’ll have spent three more hours in prayer. Some days, she is so transported that an hour steals by without her realizing it.

Last month, Martha wrote to Bishop Mark Sisk, head of the Episcopal Church’s New York diocese, formally requesting to become a solitary, a designation in the church’s canon laws that recognizes a life of solitude and silent prayer....

...But unlike a cloistered monk, who shares chores and helps generate a common income by making cheese or fruitcakes, Martha will arrange her prayer life around a schedule that looks from the outside like any other citizen’s. Week after week, she will encounter the din of the city. She will keep her apartment, shop for groceries, answer her phone, and earn a paycheck. She’ll have no abbot or abbess, and no sisters, owing her obedience only to the bishop. Martha will become, in effect, a contemplative order of one. more...

At first I thought, as I read: what a daring and counter-cultural way to live life in New York. Then I considered a typical Hassidic man in Williamsburg, married with a dozen kids, who davens three times daily and studies for hours more at a yeshiva: his prayer is not silent (and with a hevruta partner, may be full of yelling and debate), but he also lives with one foot in the mundane, concrete world and the other in a contemplative life.

And there are those who practice daily yoga, or are Muslims who manage to pray five times a day in the middle of a busy work life, or Jews at seminaries like the Academy for Jewish Religion who prepare to be rabbis or cantors while balancing part-time study with a full-time profession. I love Martha Ainsworth's story, but it's not really breaking news. She's just one of many New Yorkers who have figured out how to simultaneously retreat from and remain engaged with society, how to speak deeply on a regular basis with both God and man.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

600. 600!

It's been a very long day, but all is well. My cat no longer has a toothache (it hasn't been the greatest dental year at the alto artist household), although I might need medical care for the scratches I'll have after ten days of trying to sneak up on him from behind and force noxious-tasting antibiotics down his throat. Also good: the hole in my wall is much smaller. But the best thing about today:

this is my 600th post!

Aside from usual life activities, I can't think of anything else this much fun I've done 600 times in a row (more or less). I've read Torah perhaps 50 or 60 times and led Shaharit for the Yamim Norai'im exactly 12 (to reach 600, I'd need to stick around at least 188 more years, which I'd love, but which seems unlikely). It would probably be more appropriate to celebrate my 613th post, but I couldn't wait.

My day began with an auspicious dream. I was singing with a group of people in a classroom, a casual gathering, when someone decided we should hold services. I volunteered to lead, and someone else offered to play the piano. As we were trying to figure out if we knew the same melodies, I noticed Mick Jagger on the other side of the room! And who was sitting next to him but, of course, Keith Richards. Did Mick know I had just invoked him on my blog? Nope--he was there to listen to his brother, a taller, heavier, conventional-looking version of Mick in a plaid shirt and khakis, who was singing lovely Scottish folks songs with a little group at the front of the room. I was touched that Keith would come along to hear his friend's brother. They both paid rapt attention, and seemed to really like the music. I debated going over and saying hi, but was too intimidated. Still, just being in the same room with them was inordinately cool--and I could write about it.

So here I am, as I hope to remain for at least 600 more posts.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

599. Mirror

I saw it on the wall of my grandfather's house in old photos, and it hung above the green couch in our living room from the minute my parents moved in. It came along when I left, and is still the last thing I see when I walk out the front door. Scalloped edges aren't my taste, although were probably in style when the mirror was made sometime at the beginning of the last century. But everywhere I've lived there's always one wall where it fits perfectly, and looks stylishly retro rather than old-fashioned.

For many years my mother refused to buy a full-length mirror, which I think she considered a frivolous luxury. Besides, you could see the key parts of yourself just fine in front of the big round one. But for a better assessment of how my shoes looked with my pants, an important consideration as a teenager, I had to stand on the green couch and jump up and down until my ankles came into view. The mirror watched me grow from 6 lbs., 12 oz. to an adult, leave for school and crawl back, make some really big mistakes, fix them, pack, punch a door, laugh, cry, wonder, sigh with relief, tiptoe in confusion, doubt, tenderness. I think it did the same for my mother and grandmother before me. It keeps every secret, and always smiles back.

I wonder where it will say hello and goodbye when I can't take it with me anymore.

Monday, January 14, 2008

598. The philosopher Jagger*

After writing yesterday's post, I thought some more about how the universe often takes us where we need to be. I learned to chant Torah because I had to understand why I was singing, although was completely disinterested when C. first asked me to join her class. My involvement in Judaism grew out of a halfhearted attempt to find my basherte, and turned into a discovery that made me into a whole person. "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need."

This got me thinking about pop music. Despite all the posts about Monteverdi et al, a big chunk of my early life was spent glued to a transistor radio, or a Walkman and cassettes of The Beatles and Led Zeppelin (long after their untimely demises). I grew up hearing only classical music, which my mother loved. When I got to junior high I realized I had to know about contemporary culture in order to appear even vaguely cool, so with some trepidation changed the dial from WQXR to WABC-AM--and loved it. I became a fan of polyester-clad depressed males: Terry Jacks ("Seasons in the Sun"--ah, how I cried), Harry Chapin, Jim Croce. There was also Fleetwood Mac, Randy Newman, Chic, Gladys Knight, Chicago, America, Billy Preston, "My Sharona." (And, well after the 70s, Wham! and "Wake me Up Before You Go-Go.") I was unaware of The Sex Pistols or David Byrne. I liked disco. I wasn't cool. Sad songs were fun, but ever better if they had a bouncy beat, were in a major key, and lasted less than three minutes. That kind of sound made me happy.

When I began to learn to chant Torah, I was shocked to discover that the trop was major, as well. Now, I attended Shabbat morning services regularly, and always followed along as the portion was read. But I had little sense of keys or modes of the music, maybe because everyone used a different trop and many readers were tone-deaf. And suddenly it made sense: short and self-contained, with a neat resolution for the last few notes. Upbeat, brisk rhythm. Stories of love, triumph, and sadness. (OK, also some long lists of kosher birds, types of rashes, and fancy jewelry. But not so much in comparison to the other stuff.) The Torah was a series of pop songs, and I got to sing them! I was pretty cool, after all.

*See HOUSE, MD, Pilot episode.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

597. Knowing, part 2

(Continued from here.)

For me, I think singing in the context of prayer is a key to this deeper kind of knowledge. Unlike the model of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, where you learn and learn and continue to ascend, I reached this place reluctantly and unexpectedly. After years in a cappella groups, I was sure I had all the tools to coast along at the top of my circle of amateurs--and also that I lacked the emotional engagement to go any further. A teacher had told me so, had voiced my secret fear.

I was a snob when I first heard the music at my synagogue. Where were the glorious chord changes and complicated harmonies? It was pretty but just melody, boring and unsophisticated. Even when I began to study leyning, I was dismayed by the lack of Western musical notation. Learning by ear was for people who didn't know any better.

But a funny thing happened: chanting Torah turned out to be challenging and exhilarating, and felt completely natural--as if all my singing about lovelorn Italian peasants and, yes, Jesus' resurrection was just practice for a few minutes of holding a yad with shaky grip. I was even OK with the idea of people hearing my voice, after years of being sure my sound was the worst in any group of musicians. It probably was, because I didn't believe what I was singing. Now I did, which changed everything: I had a reason to sing, which led me to da'at, deeper awareness, and a reason for being Jewish and living a life in which I tried to make the world a better place. Not that I didn't want to do this before--I just didn't know why, so got lazy. I lived for myself alone.

R. Berlin compared knowledge to reaching a pinnacle. But my experience was more horizontal than vertical; I hadn't been climbing, but rather coasting along until I bumped into an open door. I think we tend to see life as a journey upwards: achieve! acquire more stuff! go beyond! But if we truly believe God is everywhere, we shouldn't have to scale a mountain in order to get closer. The angels on the ladder in Jacob's dream went down as well as up; the story was about movement, not ascending and staying. The key to being able to sing with all my heart did not come as a result of years of practice, of going higher and getting better, but rather by taking steps backwards and sideways. I think God likes those dances.

I worry, sometimes, that I will step in a different direction and find myself in a doorway that leads out. Faith arrived so suddenly that I'm afraid it might leave. I can't imagine it will, but I never thought I'd be writing any of these words, either.

Two years ago I wrote a d'var Torah on Parashat Tetzaveh, and next month will chant the very section of dizzying detail that so baffled me before. I know that practicing and singing will bring me to a new understanding, which will probably change entirely if I chant it again next year. Turn it around and around, for everything is in it (Bamidbar Rabba 13:15). But you can't dance around your partner while you're trying to leap over his head.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

596. Knowing, part 1

Last Shabbat morning, the rabbi spoke about God's promises to the Israelites in Parashat Vaera:

And I will take you out...
And I will rescue you...
And I will redeem you...
And I will take you to Me...
And you shall know (vidatam) that I am Adonai your God...
And I will bring you to the land...

(Exodus 6:6-8)

The first four promises are traditionally represented by each of the four glasses of wine at the Passover seder. What of the fifth? Some consider this an additional promise worthy of another cup. Writes Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1817-1893):

"... And it is the fifth expression of ascent: so much will you ascend in knowledge that you will reach the level of 'and you shall know' which is cleaving to and knowing God. It is understood that this will be fulfilled later than the previous promises, indeed this will happen at a time beyond the giving of the Torah..."

There is a difference, said the rabbi, between learning and knowing (da'at). The book of Shemot begins with the same loaded word: And a king rose up over Egypt who did not know Joseph. Knowing is an embodied learning, complex, and honest, and comes after one has truly lived and witnessed. I have to admit that I lost track of the rabbi's brilliant observations after this point, because I didn't really understand and wasn't sure if I agreed. The distinction seemed semantic, a gymnastic play on words. And I believe we can only speak for ourselves about the transition, if it does in fact exist. Not even the wisest observer can tell if we've reached a greater stage; our inner voices alone will judge. I think we drift in and out of deeper and shallower states of knowing ourselves, and God, as we grow and change, and they all seem true at the time.

But I do believe we are each attuned to different kinds of knowing, and are lucky if we figure out what they are.

( Continued here.)

Friday, January 11, 2008

595. Pigs fly, sort of!

This is amazing! From The Jerusalem Post (I assumed it was a joke when I first read the headline--but it's true):

Hartman to ordain women rabbis
(also via Jewschool)

In a step that marks a major change in gender roles within modern Orthodoxy, women will be ordained as Orthodox rabbis.

Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by Rabbi David Hartman, himself a modern Orthodox rabbi, will open a four-year program next year to prepare women and men of all denominations - Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and also Orthodox - for rabbinic ordination.

Ordination will be provided within the framework of a teacher-training program that prepares graduates to serve in Jewish high schools in North America.

"For too long now we have been robbing ourselves of 50 percent of our potential leaders; people who can shape and inspire others," said Rabbi Donniel Hartman, co-director of the institute and son of David Hartman.

"The classic distinctions between men and women are no longer relevant. People who come to the Hartman Institute to study are committed to making gender equality in Judaism a reality."


I qualified my headline because there seems to be some doubt as to whether the word "rabbi" really means "rabbi":

Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David, perhaps the first woman ever to receive Orthodox ordination (from a private rabbi, Aryeh Strikovsky, on Pessah eve 2006), said she hoped what she termed Hartman's rabbi-educator program would be "the first step toward full rabbinic ordination for Orthodox women."

She asserted that the Hartman Institute was "stopping short" of "calling them rabbis" and said this was "annoying." But, she added, "perhaps it is a political decision to start off with a half-title so as not to be too controversial and only later to give women the full title of rabbi.


And, of course, the usual (more like this can be found in comments to the Jerusalem Post article):

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a leading modern Orthodox rabbi and head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva, said in response to the Hartman Institute's announcement that he opposed giving women the title "rabbi."

"I think it is degrading to tell a woman that she won't be respected and appreciated unless she adopts a man's title," Aviner said. "Throughout the generations there were always scholarly women who were highly respected. Jewish law dictates that a man must stand before a learned woman just as he must stand out of respect for a learned man."

Aviner said he was more concerned with the idea that Orthodox Jews would study together with their Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist brothers and sisters.

"Learning Torah is like getting married," he said. "It is not just an intellectual exercise, it is a Jew's life. To learn with a totally secular Jew is permitted, but learning with Reform and Conservative Jews is problematic because they do not believe as I do, they do not have a fear of God."


Whatever. It's wonderful and--whether or not this venture succeeds--a huge step towards righting many wrongs, and bringing Jewish life into balance. More to come on this topic; I'm in a discussion group that's reading Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics , and have been thinking about these issues in ways I hadn't before considered.

Meanwhile, what a great way to begin Shabbat. Yasher koah to Rabbi Hartman.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

594. Slaves

Because I have no coherent words to share this evening, here's an excerpt from TorahFax. I randomly discovered this list, published by Rabbi Zalmen Marozov of Quebec, at almost the very first minute I decided I liked being Jewish. Their emails are kind of folksy and old-fashioned, and remind me of one of my favorite books when I was a kid.

An ancient story is told of a wealthy man who, in addition to many fields and orchards, had many servants and slaves. He was unkind, difficult and also had a violent temper. If a slave didn't fulfill his wishes to the fullest, he would be beaten mercilessly.

Once when he was beating one of his slaves, a wise man happened to walk by. He stopped and said, "It is neither proper nor ethical for one slave to be hitting another slave!"

"What do you mean one slave hitting another?" declared the rich man angrily. "I am the owner and he is my slave!"

"You are mistaken! In my opinion, you are more slave than he is! He, unfortunately, has no choice that he is a slave, but you, who cannot control your anger, are indeed enslaved to your evil temper and temptations. Your anger is your master and ruler and you are enslaved to it!"

Also greed, jealousy, workaholism, in addition to anger... New York City is full of slaves. And each Shabbat I feel more like a free person than I did the week before. One day I hope to live like the last paragraph of the Amidah:

Grant me the privilege of the liberating joy of Shabbat... Help me to extend the joy of Shabbat to the other days of the week, until I attain the goal of deep joy always. (Siddur Sim Shalom, p. 441)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

593. Sparks

The shiva minyan felt like we were replacing a piece of the puzzle that had come loose. Ritual during times of intense emotion is a parlor trick, the illusion of being in control--but this time I think something in the universe really did get re-set. I introduced myself to the woman who lost her father, sat down next to her on the sofa, joined in small talk, and listened as she looked straight into my eyes and shared the details of his long illness, and how the rabbi came to his side in the middle of the night and remained as he drew his last breath. Her focus shifted completely to me, and I could tell she was hiding great sadness. I am not used to being the one who sets and maintains an emotional stage; it was empowering and humbling, like walking on a tightrope. I kept my voice low and strong as we prayed, and for a few moments during the half hour could almost feel sparks of light and warmth bouncing softly around the living room and turning it into a holy place. We stood together and slowly recited the Mourner's Kaddish, syllable by syllable. Then I shook her hand and slipped out the door, because none of this was about me. It was all for the benefit of her family and their pain; my presence was utilitarian, incidental. It's strange to shift in and out of such brief, intense states of connection, and I am grateful beyond words for these few opportunities. But I have no idea how rabbis find the strength to do it on a regular basis.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

592. Like a seder

Tomorrow evening I'm leading another shiva minyan. I wasn't really nervous before others I've led, but did feel unsure both technically (will I remember the evening nusah?) and emotionally (will I sound empathetic and comforting, or just sad and insecure?).

But tonight I'm--at peace, for lack of a better metaphor that doesn't suggest final resting places. Although my loss this summer was nowhere nearly as traumatic as others I've endured, it is newer; death is closer. I don't mean to sound grim, but that whole foggy business of disbelief and rushed airplane trips and awkward hugs with strange relatives and tears and remembering desperately so you won't forgot but knowing you will--it is still nearby and feeding on itself like a bonfire that refuses to stop smoking. So I can walk into the shiva house and be better aware, less afraid, of the family's pain than if mine were long ago. I now feel a little more equipped to pretend I understand the landscape.

I was again struck, while practicing weekday Arvit, by how well it describes hol--daily, non-Shabbat life. The meloldies are simple, repetitive, and in a minor key, but each phrase ends in major: evening (contemplative) and morning (happier, lighter, sounds), another day. Just as Monday flows through Tuesday and continues in a blur, the vexed and unsettled bits of tune resolve and then move on.

If the time feels right after everyone shares stories, I'll say a few words about next week's parasha, Bo. Such agonies--enslaved Israelites, Egyptians tortured by the wrath of God, miserable, hard-hearted Pharaoh. But at the end of all this suffering, God commands us to mark the day with a communal festival--one so important that if we forget, we are to be cut off from all Israel (Exodus 12:5). I think God is saying that after pain, we need each other; isolated, we won't survive. I will wish for the family in this house of shiva a week of companionship as powerful, enduring, and healing as that first meal together after we became free people, and all the seders that followed.

Monday, January 07, 2008

591. Fixing a hole

I spent most of the day dealing with holes--literal ones, in a wall--that were supposedly fixed a long time ago and appeared fine to the naked eye, but were actually open and gaping. This sounds like a metaphor, and I'm sure that one day an image of the yawning, crumbling black space behind my bathroom tiles will again leap to mind, and I will understand life so much better than before. But at the moment it's just a hole on the p'shat level, and if the gentleman from Mr. Fix-It does not re-fix it at no charge, I will be very unhappy and will want to p'shoot someone. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Meanwhile, here's a display I saw last week in Rite-Aid. It's not the greatest photo, but you can still make out the stacked tins of Spam next to the dreidel shelf decorations.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

590. Sofrut, Off The Land

A great article in The Forward:

Female Torah Scribe Lives Off the Land, Religiously

about Rabbi Linda Motzkin of Saratoga Springs, New York, who is not only one of a handful of female Torah scribes working today (these two are the others I know of), but also makes her own materials from scratch, from the land. Only men can openly purchase the supplies needed to be a sofer (or soferet) and write a Torah:

"Motzkin, who refused to obtain the tools of her holy trade under a pretense, turned instead to her own backyard, drawing on the townspeople and the environs of Saratoga to fashion her own materials.

Motzkin makes her own parchment out of deerskin, bounty given to her by local hunters, fashions quills from reeds or bird feathers, and ritually immerses herself in a neighbor’s pond. The ink she uses was a gift from her teacher, but she is working with a congregant to brew her own. So far, they haven’t made a batch to her liking, but she’s still trying."

According to her bio, she's also a co-author of the textbook through which I'm happily struggling in my Biblical Hebrew class, The First Hebrew Primer: The Adult Beginner’s Path to Biblical Hebrew. This book has slowly but surely opened many hidden doors for me (more about this in future posts). To be able to make language accessible through art as well as meaning--an amazing gift and calling.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

589. Escape

After services this morning I took a long subway trek to the wilds of Queens, not far from where I grew up, to visit cousins of mine and their son and daughter, ages one and two. We ate lunch and spent a couple of hours shmoozing and watching my littlest cousin eat a rugelach. This sounds like an unremarkable way to spend the day, but was actually extraordinary: I have more amazing friends than anyone could ever want, but very few family with whom to hang out and do nothing. Some are dead; some are far away, both geographically and emotionally; and my parents, for a variety of reasons, some sensible, some not, lost touch with most of the others. But a few, like big, fat raindrops of blessings from the sky, quite literally found me as an adult, and we continue to rebuild broken connections and become great friends. I am very lucky. All day long I kept thinking about what the rabbi said at services on Friday night about a line in this week's Torah portion:

I will take you to Myself as a nation, and I will be to you as a God. You will know that I am God your Lord, the One who is bringing you out from under the Egyptian subjugation.

Velakachti etchem li le'am vehayiti lachem le'Elohim vidatem ki ani Adonay Eloheychem hamotsi etchem mitachat sivlot Mitsrayim. (Exodus 6:7)

The word usually translated as "subjugation" or "suffering," sivlot, is from a Hebrew root that can also mean "patience" or "tolerance." A Hassidic commentator interprets this as saying that that God--Who, of course, knew of the Israelites' plight all along--chose this particular moment to save us because we had become accustomed to our pain, and had learned to tolerate it. Our true enslavement was that we stopped looking for ways to escape our suffering.

So often we get used to pain, and even choose to indulge in martyrdom over taking the difficult steps to change and bring our lives to the next place they need to be. Because my parents lost touch with so many relatives, I used to think I was supposed to keep up the tradition--that close families were for other people, and I was meant to be stoic, hide my tears, and watch holiday dinners from the other side of the window. I think of how my niece and cousins reached out and saw past my walls, my enslavement to an affliction I believed I was meant to inherit, and am amazed at God for bringing these wise, patient and loving people into my life.

Friday, January 04, 2008

588. The Alter Rebbe's Niggun

I came across this video on YouTube while searching for something else entirely. "The Alter Rebbe's niggun is the most sacred of all Chabad melodies," reads the description, "and is only sung during weddings and other special occasions." One might think, judging by YouTube content, that niggunim are popular only in the Orthodox and Hassidic words. This was once the case, but they are now sung, traditionally as wordless melodies or set to prayer, by all streams of Judaism. To me they sound like a direct conduit to the past, and a mystical world no one understands anymore. I have before never heard one played on the flute, as in the haunting and beautiful example below. The musician is praying, not performing; it's impossible to listen without closing your eyes and remembering that Shabbat will be here very, very soon.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

587. Equal opportunity (part 2)

(Continued from here.)

A few weeks ago at the gym I was listening to a podcast of Speaking of Faith, one of my favorite NPR programs. The topic was "The New Evangelical Leaders," featuring a conversation with Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, a magazine with the tagline "Christians for Justice and Peace." My first instinct, for which I hated myself, was to fast-forward. Even though I am a passionate member of a synagogue that meets in a church and devotes much of its spiritual energy to interfaith understanding, even though I believe in doing so with all my heart, the phrase "Evangelical" still make me nervous. The remnants of my childhood biases are like the kind of cholesterol that diet and exercise can't cure, as in these ads showing fatty foods on one side of the page, and your fat uncle on the other. Sometimes I think I need the help of a Lipitor of tolerance. (And it should work on my own religion, too; at times I am also suspect of the motives and sanity of certain flavors of right-wing Jews.)

I didn't fast-forward. I listened, at first, out of guilt, but was soon hooked--Rev. Wallis spoke about social justice, his early work in poor Southern neighborhoods, the need to partner across racial and religious lines, and sounded very much like my own rabbis. Then, just as I was beginning to break a sweat on the treadmill, the topic turned to Catholicism and I suddenly thought about my old friend C., and a phone call we had when we were about ten and had run out of gossip about our friends.

"I bet you're wondering why you sometimes can't hear me when I say 'Jesus,'" she said.

"Um, I never noticed, " I answered. A big topic at St. Mary's, His name did come up occasionally during our conversations.

"Well, it's because I have to bow my head whenever I say it," she explained. "In case you were wondering."

Thereafter I noted C.'s muffled voice, as if she was addressing the little cross pinned to the inside of her undershirt. I thought it was cool. Her bowed head seemed comparable to my kissing the siddur when I closed it, an act of straightforward sincerity that felt right even years later during my most disillusioned moments. Kissing a siddur was always like a band-Aid for my spiritual wounds and brought me right back to the age of ten, when acknowledging God 's presence was easier and could be expressed by one simple gesture. I heard in Rev. Wallis that same pure honesty of words and convictions, a goodness that seemed closer to what I understood as a child, uncomplicated, free of anger and politics. He reminded me why I love the way my own synagogue prods me to go beyond my comfort zone, challenge my own narrowness, and become a better person. And how, in the ecstatic music of our prayer, in our feet and hands as we march for justice or work in soup kitchens, we step back from words and doubt and return to the directness of action, where God is always apparent.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

586. Trust me on this.

To the reader who found me the other day by typing this in Google:

fear of chanting

I feel your pain (although not lately, thank goodness). A word of advice: write a blog about every possible detail of your angst and one day, six years later, you will only shake a little when you read Torah! This past Shabbat I was so calm, relatively speaking, one could theoretically have pried the yad from my grip if one wished. (Usually I grasp it as tightly as if the fate of the world depended upon the strength of my knuckles.)

Perhaps within the next six years all my other reflexes will join my mind in acknowledging how much fun it really is.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

585. Quiet, part 2

(Continued from here. And happy new year!)

The local library would have been a perfect alternative; too bad it was closed. But The Jewish Theological Seminary library is nearby, open to the public, and probably bursting with Jewish-related inspiration. I don't know this for certain, since I have thus far been too irrationally intimidated to step inside. I decided to end the year on a courageous note, and headed uptown after checking online and at the recorded number to make sure they were open.

They were closed. Rabbinic scholars have better things to do than update their voicemail and websites.

All pumped up to write in an exotic location, I got back on the subway and headed to the Donnell Library, one of two in Manhattan open on Sundays. I went there often as a teenager, since it was just one stop away from Queens and a good place to dump overdue library books. (Yes, I was a profligate breaker of laws back then. They always found me out and sent menacing letters demanding fines, which I paid.) On Sunday the library was blissfully empty and bathed in fluorescent light, a humming, green-tinged island of quiet amidst jostling holiday tourists on this block of MoMA and St. Patrick's. Although I am a tolerant, open-minded person, I sometimes hate tourists with the passion of a thousand burning suns. They cram like lemmings into the streets of midtown, which also happens to be my back yard; they gawk while standing smack in the middle of the sidewalk, where the view is no different than over to the side and away from my usual frenetic trajectory. Thankfully, none of those people came to the Donnell. I sat in a sterile carrel and wrote for an hour, had lunch at a great old diner, and came home newly inspired.

It was a good lesson about focus, especially as I prepared to help lead the Contemplative service. A change of scenery can work wonders; silence is ultimately the measure of the noise inside one's head.