Friday, February 29, 2008

644. Official Blog 365 Day of Rest

I should not be posting today, Leap Day, according to the rules. Yet here I am (albeit without much to say). I'm not trying to be defiant or radical, but have decided to defer my day off to the real Shabbat Shabbaton (extremely large day of rest): Yom Kippur, Thursday, October 9. Meanwhile, wishing everyone a nice, smaller taste of eternity. Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

643. Requiem

This has been reported on other blogs, but I would be remiss if I did not point it out to my handfuls of readers:


Frozen bagels already stuffed with cream cheese, to free us from the arduous task of applying the schmear by ourselves.

I can only weep. I have eaten frozen bagels and they, sir, are no bagels. Last week, out of boredom and possibly drugged without my knowledge, I bought a bagel-shaped object to accompany my coffee at Starbucks. Afterwards I wished I had chosen to eat my NY Times, instead.

Bagels have always retained a hint of defiance for me. My grandfather was a baker, and his union did not like the bagel-baker's union; I don't recall a bagel gracing our household until I was a teenager. I think the act, for my mother, was like crossing a picket line. My first surreptitious bite occurred at a friend's house, and I soon became an addict.

In New York these days the best diners are Greek, the best fruit markets Korean, and the best bagels, IMHO, Thai: Absolute Bagels. They are fluffy and small, unlike the modified bricks I used to savor. My challah-loving grandfather would approve, labor disputes aside. I fear he is at this very moment rolling over in his grave regarding Bagel-fuls.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

642. Mirror

"Until you don't know..."
--Talmud (Megillah 7b)

I'm taking a class on Purim, which will arrive in a few weeks. Take a poll of anyone who ever celebrated this holiday, no matter their age or background--they'll remember a day of costumes, silly plays about Queen Esther, and possibly large amounts of alcohol. (Me, I proudly made the signs every year for the Hebrew school play. That's all I ever wanted to do, as a graphic designer in progress.)

Purim is generally considered a minor diversion before Pesah, when the real stuff happens. But Purim is in fact very serious--more so than Yom Kippur, according to rabbinic commentators. When the Messiah comes, they wrote, all holidays save one--Purim--will disappear. No need to recall exile or redemption, sin or atonement, because the universe will be perfect. But Purim is on a different plane. We will need it even when complete.

Yom Kippur, or (in the plural) Yom haKippurim, means "Day of Atonement." But Yom HaKippurim could also mean day (yom) like (ki) Purim. (The word "Purim" by itself translates as "lots," referring to the random way evil King Ahasuerus chose when the Jews would die.) What does the most holy day on the Jewish calendar have to do with the most frivolous, a celebration not even mentioned in the Torah?

But perhaps it is: the name "Esther" is derived from a word meaning "to hide," and God says in Deuteronomy, "And I shall surely hide [haster astir]." I prefer the less oblique explanation: On Yom Kippur, we alter our consciousness by afflicting our bodies. We refrain from eating in order to reach a different plane of awareness where we hope to gain new understanding of how we missed the mark during the past year, and how we can accept forgiveness and begin anew. On Purim we also alter our consciousness, but skip the body part: we go directly to the brain, whether by drinking (as it is is commanded, "until you don't know the difference" between Haman and Mordekhai, night and day, good and evil--until you revert to a state before creation when all was tohu vavohu, an undifferentiated void), or some other, less destructive method. To this end, we dress in costume so we can act unlike our usual selves and feel free to reveal what we keep hidden. In that process we blur the lines within which we are constrained, and find new truths from deepest parts that rarely see light.

When we look in a mirror, said the rabbi during class, can we be completely certain which version is the real one?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

641. Deeper than words

I was saddened to read about the bankruptcy and possible demise of the Lilian Vernon catalogue. As a kid I spent many Saturday evenings at synagogue bazaars, a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to exist any more. (I think churches held them as well, but we never went to those.) At a bazaar, which took place in the empty Sanctuary or basement of a house of worship, you’d find used clothing, new leather goods, all manner of tchotchkes, overstocked softcover books with their covers ripped off, boxes of Barbie doll outfits, Bingo and raffles, and elderly people playing strange Wheel of Fortune-type games. We could well afford to shop at actual stores--I never wore hand-me-downs--but I think my parents enjoyed the thrill of the hunt. A leather belt was so much more satisfying to own if it was found at the bottom of a big pile of wallets. And I could go to any library I pleased, but books were somehow more exciting if discovered in a cardboard carton, which is why I read The World of Star Trek, got hooked on the show, and became proud to be a geek.

Bazaars disappeared from Flushing in the '70s, but were soon replaced in our household by catalogue shopping. We had no need for L.L. Bean, though—Lillian Vernon and Harriet Carter were more our speed, much closer to the bazzar concept. We browsed far more often than we bought. I spent Sundays at my father’s house after my parents divorced; we often didn’t have much to say to one another, but many games of gin rummy and hours of flipping through catalogues filled the gaps. This sounds kind of sad, but was not at all--there are languages deeper than words. I remember the day he agreed to buy me a funky, 60s-style beaded shoulder bag from Lillian Vernon—who would have imagined!—I was overjoyed and proud of his unexpected embrace of popular culture.

So I guess I'm writing about the same phenomenon as in my last post—celebration of the ordinary. With the loss of Lillian Vernon will come fewer and fewer places to buy items like Countertop Seam Covers or Jewelry Organizers, both of which enhanced my life at various times with their sleek utilitarianism and complete lack of style. Rest in peace.

Monday, February 25, 2008

640. Diners and therapy

I've recently begun to eat at The Greasy Diner. Like many New Yorkers, not just single people but entire families, I eat out a lot. I am lazy, I don’t have much time to cook, it's expensive to make dinner for one, and I work at home—I need a break from my own four walls, lovely as they may be. My neighborhood boasts many diners: the Faux Retro one with good food, the Slightly Modern one with really excellent food, the Touristy, Expensive and Cutesy one, the Famous one with nasty waiters, and the Greasy one, where I refused to set foot for many years. One is assailed a half a block away by the aroma of stale fries. Formica on the sides of pale pink booths is chipping off, and prices are still painted in red and black on a big plastic sign, daily specials added to a dry-erase board next to a behemoth of a non-electronic cash register. Greasy Diner clientele are a mix of old men, single women, college students, and people who look lost and distracted. All the other diners have lines out into the street for Sunday brunch, but there's always a seat at The Greasy.

One day I realized that a tuna melt is a tuna melt, when you get down to it, and it's better not to pay extra for the decor, and walked in. The counter was full and I thought about Woolworth's, my favorite treat as a very little kid. My mother would let me order a hot dog, and if I was lucky I'd take home one of the balloon animals that hung from the ceiling above the counter. To the right of the restaurant was the pet department, sufficiently distant so that puppy smells wouldn’t intrude on the food but still close enough to let the squawks of parakeets accompany the clink of water glasses and whirrr of dozens of pairs of lips blowing on hot coffee. The Woolworth’s lunch counter was technically not a diner, but close enough, and I've loved them ever since.

There’s something very intimate about The Greasy Diner, even though we're a bunch of strangers eating solitary meals at separate tables. I feel we are united in our respect for the ordinary. Along these same lines, my latest addiction is the HBO show In Treatment, about ongoing weeks in the life of a therapist and his patients--compelling because it's about real people grappling deeply and messily, grease and all, with usual problems. Yes, there is an extra heaping of melodrama and beautiful Hollywood bodies, but these characters are real and complicated in ways I've rarely seen on TV. They remind me of my friends, or my fellow diners. The therapist is a piece of work, too—everyone is in the same boat.

It’s interesting to read reviews of the show, which range from brilliant to scathing. The most negative are bored by the spectacle of two people whining at each other in an unrealistically large office (but, therapy does exist outside of New York City!), and are offended by breaches of ethical conduct. Others applaud the daring of HBO to feature older actors exchanging smart dialogue, and a lack of storylines about things exploding or being taken hostage by terrorists. I watch and feel like a voyeur—like I’m witnessing a car accident but can't turn away. I hate myself for enjoying these people's pain, but it is such well-acted agony that I have to see it through.

In Treatment was based very closely (down to an almost identical script) on B'tipul, an Israeli show that became a national phenomenon. Hopes were high that it would have the same effect here—but I think we are too jaded. I can imagine that tough, sentimental Israelis would be drawn to a kind of cathartic mirror of their own political and personal situations. In the U.S., however, we just want to escape to Dancing With the Stars and pretend the problem is not ours. We gravitate to the Faux Retro diner rather than the Greasy one.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

639. Hidden and revealed

Last night I dreamed I was standing on the shore of an ocean, but the waves lapping up were made of people rather than water. I watched a brightly-colored stew of bodies wriggling back and forth in a most friendly and amusing fashion, teasing at my feet and inviting me to jump in and swim.

I really wanted to—the sun was big and yellow, and my bare feet burned in the sand—but as much as I imagined the joy of diving into that cool sea of faces, I was afraid I’d disappear and become anonymous, lost in the crowd. That I would never again be noticed.

I woke up and thought of this blog. I enjoy the freedom and safety of revealing myself while also hidden, but sometimes wonder how I might feel if more public with my observations. But I am not yet ready to dive into all those people, nice as I know they will be. I still need to remain apart, if only to keep my identity, which I am still figuring out even after all these years, safe within my own mind. Maybe I'm tentative because I know freedom quite well--I open so much of myself when I sing and pray--and it is both exhilarating and frightening.

The tension between being hidden and revealed is a very Jewish one. I was reminded of the Mishkan (tabernacle) that we've been reading about for the last few parshiot. Its beautiful adornments--golden poles, bells and pomegranates, priests in glorious linens and jeweled breastplates--are visible to all, but the most holy part, the Kodesh Hakodashim, is hidden from sight. The Aron, the Ark, that houses Torah scrolls at a synagogue, is also veiled with a curtain until the moment its words are uttered to the congregation. The truest parts of our stories and ourselves resist being revealed, and also need to be protected.

(I write this at the JTS Library, which I finally summoned the chutzpah to enter. It's very quiet, save for the hum of an air conditioner and click of neighboring keyboards. I'm sitting in an easy chair by a big window, looking past tall apartment buildings to a sliver of Harlem in the distance. What is everyone in those homes doing on this calm Sunday, I wonder? This is far, far better than Starbucks. If ever I decide to write a book I would do it here, in the company of thousands of years of Jewish wisdom.)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

638. The Band's Visit

I just saw a wonderful movie: The Band's Visit, the story of a little Egyptian police band who find themselves in the wrong, boring backwater Israeli town. Like Seinfeld or Waiting For Godot, it's the story of spending a great deal of time doing nothing at all, and the unexpected encounters and connections we find as a result. The Band's Visit is drily funny and a little sentimental, with dialogue so sparse it could have been a poem. It unfolds against a stark sand backdrop like a slow, sky-blue dream (the color of the Egyptians' very proper uniforms, which they never remove). It is also, like almost every movie made in Israel, a metaphor for the the Arab-Israeli conflict. We all have loneliness in common no matter what our backgrounds or beliefs. But you don't have to think about politics when you watch this movie--just people, and how we can meet each other deeply even under the least expected, most threatening of circumstances.

Friday, February 22, 2008

637. On Shabbat

This evening at services the rabbi spoke about the "yes" of Shabbat, which is often overshadowed by the "no"--all the things we can't do. But there is so much we can: rest, study, enjoy the company of our loved ones, choose words more carefully than usual, be the kind of person we wanted to be during the week, but were too busy. I was reminded of this 2003 New York Times article:

Bring Back the Sabbath

in which the author outlines the history of Puritan and Christian Sabbath observance in the U.S. and its strong messages of "no," which feel especially oppressive when government-mandated. She rediscovered the Sabbath of her Jewish heritage (much as I did) and found the concept liberating, all the stuff about religion aside. She acknowledges that it's difficult to slow down when speeding up is the prevailing culture, and wishes for a universal Sabbath to make it easier to practice what she preaches. She concludes:

What was Creation's climactic culmination? The act of stopping. Why should God have considered it so important to stop? Rabbi Elijah of Vilna put it this way: God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful to us only once we stop creating it and start to think about why we did so. The implication is clear. We could let the world wind us up and set us to marching, like mechanical dolls that go and go until they fall over, because they don't have a mechanism that allows them to pause. But that would make us less than human. We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember.

I could not agree more with these worlds, but was also bemused by the overall tone of the article: Shabbat is daring, different, and just waiting for you to discover it. And if everyone does, it will become cool--but at present, although wonderful, it's a little weird. And so are you, if you choose to observe.

This recent post on BlogHer was along the same lines:

Starting a Sabbath Practice for Emotional Well-Being

The author also suggests that Shabbat is radical, and dares us to try it:

What if we took some time every week simply to rest? What would happen if we picked up the ancient practice of Sabbath-keeping?

I had to chuckle (in a good way) at this line, as well. What would happen? Well, you'd be like millions of Jews who stop completely and thoroughly every Shabbat, and millions more (like me) who acknowledge the day of rest to other degrees. Rather than dusting off some ancient idea, you'd be following a living, modern practice. I observe Shabbat for many reasons, not that least that I would otherwise find an excuse to work seven days a week, which I know would kill me, but would chose do anyway because I am vulnerable to the pressures and rewards of society. These days I am sane and counter-cultural, the term used by the rabbis at my synagogue for this concept of stopping--of taking a break from trying to improve creation, and instead sitting back and simply enjoying it for a day. Of living in "yes" instead of "no," a good philosophy for all times of the week.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

636. Singing through stone

(I'm aiming for a post for every day of the year... a little different than posting every day of the year. So I'm catching up, and don't think I've fallen off the wagon just yet...)

Some thoughts about the shiva minyan I led last week:

Grief is such a strange country, its ground covered by thicket even though everyone pretends the road is clear. At this minyan, as at others I've led, family members of the deceased greet me with intensity, look me straight in the eye, and in a big rush tell me me the details of their week--but they are actually not focused on me at all. They seem to be looking right through me to everyone else who sat in their living room during this week of shiva, and possibly at people who attended the funeral, as well. I am like a sponge catching words they've tried to squeeze out for days, and at this particular moment no tears happen to stand in the way. I introduce myself as "not a rabbi" and think I can hear a few sighs of relaxation in the room. I wonder what the older man with the long beard in the corner is thinking. I sing with confidence, wanting to create solid ground upon which sadness can pool and relax. The family stands close to me, and I make sure to turn pages when they do, not too fast, not too slow.

Everyone in this room is so tense. I have very little to do, but it's much harder than leading services when I'm standing at a rabbi's side--I feel like I'm trying to sing through stone. I try to conjure up images of deep color, fire, anything that can help convince my sound to become as warm as possible. In some ways I feel like a voyeur, and that I've taken the easy way out--this is not my grief, I don't even know these people. But they are part of my world, my community, and I am honored and grateful to be invited into their lives. I listen to stories about the deceased, a remarkable woman who filled her life with music, language, and love. I recognize this kind of person--many members of my congregation are from the same mold, refusing to follow the crowd, making new roads. I want to be like her when I grow up.

And at the end the old man with the beard comes over to thank me and shake my hand.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

635. Camels

We can strive to lead lives filled with prayer, good deeds, and mystical experiences, but there is still nothing better than walking down a street in Manhattan at 8AM and seeing three camels parked on the sidewalk right between the cars.

(Taken in November, 2007, as they were hanging out in preparation for another long day as stars of the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. If camels drank Starbucks lattes, I'm sure they would have been sipping a few at the moment I snapped this photo.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

634. Truth

The mystic mind tends to hold the world together: to behold the seen in conjunction with the unseen, to keep the fellowship with the unknown through the revolving door of the unknown, to learn the higher supernal wisdom from all that God had created and to regain the knowledge that once was in the possession of humans and that has perished from them. What our senses perceive is but the jutting edge of what is deeply hidden. Extending over into the invisible, the things of this world stand in secret contact with that which no eye has ever perceived. Everything certifies the sublime, the unapparent working jointly with the apparent.

--Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), The Mystical Element in Judaism

Monday, February 18, 2008

633. Wholeness

Written as I am about to head off to lead a shiva minyan:

At first I said I wasn't available, which was technically true: it was an exhausting week, and I felt emotionally unequipped to share in someone else's grief. But they couldn't find enough volunteers because of the long holiday weekend, and the call for minyan participants went out once again. And then I was asked to lead, so could not say no.

The technical aspects of Ma'ariv are easy for me me now, but I'm still insecure about the speaking part. I only have to say a few words after everyone shares memories of the deceased (and, really, no one would mind if I kept my mouth shut--the days of a mourner are long enough as it is), and I want these words to be comforting in some way. I feel responsible for fulfilling my role as prayer leader in spirit as well as action, bringing meaning to the ritual.

I turned to the beginning of this coming week's parasha, Ki Tissa, in hopes that an insight would leap off the page and demand to be noticed. It did. The parasha opens with a census in which each participant must contribute a half shekel in order to be counted. Why (said the commentary at the bottom of the page) a half shekel and not a whole? Because a half shekel reminds us that we're incomplete--that we must join together with others in order to become whole.

And at the end of the parasha, after the incident with the Golden Calf and destruction of the first set of tablets, Moshe ascends the mountain to receive a second set. But this one--the one that really matters--unlike the first set, was fashioned by both God and Moshe together--created by partnership out of brokenness.

It's the same with a shiva minyan. At times of grief, we are broken and need each other in prayer and support to help restore ourselves to wholeness.

I will share some of these words at the end of the minyan and will wish the mourning family a week of shiva that, with the help of their community, brings tikkun (repair) and healing.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

632. On writing

These past almost-two months of (more or less) daily writing have been an interesting learning experience. Until embracing ritual in the form of Jewish observance, I was resolutely against the idea of doing anything the same way from one time to the next. This vow didn't always translate into action: for three years, for example, I bought my coffee and buttered roll from the exact same coffee shop at just about exact same minute each morning. (Eventually they learned to watch for me as I crossed the street, and would hand me a bag of breakfast the instant I walked in.) I think I allowed myself the luxury of devising insignificant patterns because I didn't want to succumb to larger ones. I refused to apply the same insights more than once to any creative endeavor, and even remained with boyfriends longer than I should have because I feared making the same mistakes as before--better to stick with a bad but unique solution. Strange but true.

But the discipline of fixed prayer has taught me that certain insights can only be discovered through repetition, after you've plumbed the surface for so long that you have no choice but go deeper. You get bored, or think you'll go nuts if you have to read the same sentence one more time, and then a word will jump out that will put your whole day, or life, into perspective. We live to learn, which we can do only if ready to receive wisdom. It's like the lottery: if you're in it you can win it. The more I pray, the more I place myself in the right frame of mind to understand what I'm saying.

The practice of writing in this blog (even if just two words) seems to be teaching the same lesson. Writing slows down life, and forces me to look more closely at daily miracles that might go by unnoticed. I often write best when I sit down with nothing to say. Like Musaf on some Shabbat mornings when I forget how cool it is to sing and pray and can only think about lunch after services end, I am tempted to imagine how great I'll feel when the year is over and I rest on the laurels of those 365 posts. I need to remind myself of the the whole point of this exercise: to create a framework and disciple that will help me enjoy the journey as it happens. This is also why we pray: to find the sublime within the routine, word by repetitive word.

Meanwhile, I like to think that my two-word posts, for reasons I might figure out one day in a thousand-word post, are exactly what I need to hear at that very moment.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Friday, February 15, 2008

Thursday, February 14, 2008

629. Choshen

I spent many years singing in choirs on the topics of love, loss, and all manner of (mostly non-Jewish) spiritual experience--but I never made music about holy jewels, as I will this coming Shabbat morning. My section of Tetzaveh concerns the choshen hamishpat, the "breastplate of decision" that the High Priest wore above his apron-like multi-colored garment. I get to describe it line by line, and hope that people will see something like this in their mind's eye as they read along in English:

(Illustration from Wikipedia)

Until this week I didn't realize how many choshenim (choshenot?) were in my life, and then took a closer look at the ornamentation on my candlesticks:

(They came from an Israeli crafts fair, and you can buy them online here.)

Perhaps some congregants will be wearing the ever-popular choshen necklace on Shabbat morning:

And if there is such a thing as a choshen tie, F., our gabbai, will have it on.

On the one hand it seems sacrilegious to hang a tiny holy breastplate from your neck or ears, but on on the other, what better way to remember Aaron, who got to wear much nicer clothing than his brother? I would love to see a choshen design on a "kittel of decision" (rather than of eternal rest) for the hazzan to wear on Simhat Torah, a holiday when jewels of joy would make perfect accessories.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

628. Shabbat Shalom, and please do not drop that kidney

I'm about a week late on the blog bandwagon to note that the most recent episode of my second-favorite show*, HOUSE, M.D. was about, you guessed it, Orthodox Jews. They did a pretty good job of portraying religious people as normal humans not from Mars (aside from the otherworldly medical conditions with which all of Dr. House's unfortunate patients suffer). A ba'alat teshuvah collapses at her wedding and is diagnosed in the last scene with a weird ailment. In the interim, we hear exquisite music by Richard Kaplan, his version of a haunting niggun that I wrote about a few weeks ago after stumbling upon it on You Tube, and learn that it's OK to lie to your wife about when Shabbat begins.

They could have presented that part a little better. As Rabbi Phyllis Sommer noted in her blog, the mitzvah of Shabbat, which the wife wishes to observe at all costs, seems to have trumped that of pikuah nefesh, saving a life. It usually works the other way around. The husband really did try to honor both, understanding his wife's need to celebrate at least one Friday evening with him before succumbing to the mysterious disease as well as wanting to do everything possible to keep her alive in the process. But the way they fooled her was clumsy and unbelievable. It almost looked like they drugged her to pull off the ruse--and then suddenly she was lighting candles, eating challah, and conveniently not looking out the window. Why trick the wife at all? Why couldn't the husband explain (dramatically, perhaps while arguing with his kids from a previous marriage) that it was OK in this dire situation to usher in Shabbat a little early?

Still, the writing was intelligent and respectful, and Dr. House's disdain for all things spiritual not so mean as to become cartoonish. I appreciate his ongoing struggle with the question of who is more invincible, House or God. And I wonder if he knew the words to "Eshet Chayil" because, as a kid on an army base in China where his father was stationed, he befriended a nice couple from Chabad who paid much more attention to him than his parents ever did...

* Current number one favorite: Vincent D'Onofrio episodes of LAW & ORDER, CI. (Which is really the same show as HOUSE, except with cops instead of doctors and a vulnerable, damaged Sherlock Holmes stand-in instead of a mean, damaged one.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

627. Gifts

Today is Zayin Adar, the 7th day of the month of Adar and, it is said, Moses’ yahrzeit. Zayin Adar is also the traditional date to honor the Hevra Kadisha ("holy society"), a group within a community or synagogue dedicated to helping at the time of the death of a loved one. With sensitivity and speed (since tradition demands that burial take place immediately after death), Hevra Kadisha members perform difficult rituals like taharah (washing of the body), shmirah ("guarding" the deceased until the time of interment), and organizing shiva minyanim (services in the family's home), as well as equally important tasks like sitting with the mourning family at services and arranging for food to be sent to their home during shiva. Yet, traditionally, its members rarely speak about their duties. The deceased can't thank them, either. The Hevra Kadisha insures that death in the Jewish tradition remains dignified and intimate even as it must be a public event.

Tonight my synagogue, like many others, held a dinner in honor of those who participate silently in this mitzvah. Our speaker shared the story of her son's sudden death in Israel and how the Hevra Kadisha stepped in and took care of details when she couldn’t arrange an immediate flight from the U.S. Yet she was also critical of some of our traditions, particularly one popular in parts of the Orthodox world: the prohibition against organ donation. Our bodies are sacred vessels, and some interpret this to mean that every single bit of flesh and blood must return to the earth as God commanded. Others believe that one day, if we’re lucky, the Messiah will come and raise the dead, who will need their bodies. So woe to them if others happen to be using their kidneys or corneas at the time.

I listened to these words and thought about Parashat Tetzaveh, a chunk of which I’m chanting this coming Shabbat. Two years ago I wondered how to find meaning in its overwhelming flood of details; the broad strokes of Bereshit conjure the creation of the universe in my mind’s eye more readily than long lists of jewels, colorful threads, and bells and ornaments help me comprehend the astonishing task of building a mishkan (tabernacle). I concluded, as Mies van der Rohe wrote, that “God is in the details”—and humanity, in our ability to see the bigger picture that God wanted us to find.

Our bodies are also a temple of intricate detail, as we celebrate each morning with this prayer:

Blessed are You, our Eternal God, Creator of the Universe, who has made our bodies in wisdom, creating openings, arteries, glands, and organs marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be difficult to stand before You. Wondrous Fashioner and Sustainer of life, Source of our health and our strength, we give you thanks and praise.

God told us to build the mishkan in God’s honor. It was our gift to God; it belonged to God. And we belong to God as well: we are God's gift to this planet, to live and grow and then return to the earth God created. We are on loan to the universe. So what better way to acknowledge a gift than share it with others in the form of organ donation, and extend the miracle? Our physical beings are easily as intricate and marvelous as the jewels of the tabernacle--there just doesn’t happen to be a parasha about them. Or maybe there is, and the breastplate of decision is my ribcage and the two gold rings, my lungs. As I sing this Shabbat, I will imagine I am offering my gifts in thanks for God’s and, with every breath, helping to create a sacred place just as the Israelites did.

Monday, February 11, 2008

626. Light

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, July 2007.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

625. Passageway

Last night I walked through the tunnel between (as they used to be known, and many native New Yorkers over the age of 30 still think of them) the BMT and IRT subway lines at Times Square, and again noticed the "Burma Shave"-style poetry on signs gracing the I-beams above:

So tired
If late
Get fired.
Why bother?
Why the pain?
Just go home
Do it again.

--"The Commuter's Lament/A Close Shave," 1991, Normal B. Colp (d. 2007)

I haven't read the poem as often as many commuters--my parents taught me to avoid this tunnel at all costs and, even though Times Square is no longer dirty and gross, I still heed those words. But whenever I need to make the transfer, and remember to look up and then down again to watch people scowling and rushing past, I am transported back into the numbing drudgery of every bad job I've ever had. If poetry is a reflection of life, Mr. Colp's perfectly terse words are a mirror of the DNA of working New Yorkers. Existential angst lives forever between the BMT and IRT (except perhaps on New Year's Eve, when Times Square is transformed into an orgy of drunken denial).

The best part of walking through this tunnel is passing the stairway to the #7 train (my route back to Queens as a kid), and continuing on to the #1 (home). My life in concrete. There's usually a musician playing on the #1 train platform, maybe a guy with a weird electric violin or a flautist who might be a student at Julliard, reminding me why it's always important to keep moving until I get to the other end of that passageway.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

624. Engendering prayer, part 2

So, finally finishing my thoughts of last Tuesday (continued from here):

But even though my initial awareness of God grew from understanding the words of a prayer, other words made me continue to come to services: the rabbis' divrei Torah, welcomes from congregants who would soon become friends, exhortations to repair the world. Music became my language of prayer, and I was moved more by sounds than their translation into language. My prayer was complete without words.

As I understand more Hebrew, doors continue to open into Torah. It's exciting, but so far hasn't changed my way of talking to God and connecting to the unfathomable. Words help, but they can't provide all the answers. The definition of God is the inability to define--which is also the definition of frustration, because we humans need language and fixed meaning to sort out the universe. I think the recent flood of atheist polemics indicates a struggle with this conundrum: we want to believe, to take comfort in knowing we're not alone in our journey, but it's less troubling to admit we'll never have a definitive answer than to decide (based upon millions of earlier confusing, searching words) that doubt and leaps of faith are irrational.

That God's existence can't be proven makes me cherish even more the unexplainable presence I feel. What is the energy coming in waves from the congregation, threatening to knock me over, whenever I stand at the bima? or hands of strangers putting my heart at ease when I need help? or sounds I don't recognize that somehow come out of my mouth when I sing? Who can say for certain that these are purely human phenomena, or not? I choose to believe they originate with a spark that emanated from a place I won't find in a science book. This is what I call God. Even if I'm wrong, I don't care--however labeled, these moments make life worth living, and infinitely intriguing.

At the end of class we were asked to consider the metaphors we use to picture God--gendered? Male or female? I realized I hadn't before felt the need to explore feminist theology because I (mostly) envision a God made of sound, wind, color, light--Who, without form, can surround me any time I need. But now that I'm getting deeper into the world of words, for prayer as well as Torah, I need to think more carefully about the baggage they carry.

Friday, February 08, 2008

623. Words of great substance

Shabbat Shalom! (I swore to post every day for a year for Blog 365, and posts of two words count--especially two words as important as "Shabbat Shalom.")

Thursday, February 07, 2008

622. Soon

It's amazing how effectively a 30-second event can knock all the air out of a person. I'm exhausted. More words to come very soon.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

621. Today

Today I:

-- woke up at 5AM
-- went to three meetings, one class, and facilitated a dialogue group
-- did three hours of work in between meetings
-- took six separate subway rides
-- almost died during ride #3. I was leaning against the conductor's door because the train was crowded; door flew open; I fell backwards into the conductor's booth, which fortunately stood between me and the subway tracks. Conductor had chosen to open the door without checking if someone was on the other side. Conductor also chose not to catch me as I fell, and instead began to scream that I shouldn't have been there in the first place. I fortunately landed on my hip rather than my skull, no damage done. I sat up and opened my eyes to the vision of a dozen pairs of hands reaching down to help me up, restoring my faith in humanity.

One of my biggest fears in life is getting run over by a train (which happened to someone I know, a long time ago). Yet I wasn't terrified when I realized I was falling--just really, really pissed off. How DARE this happen! I'm still in the middle of everything!

The only words I can write about God today are... thank you.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

620. Engendering prayer, part 1

As I've mentioned before, I'm in a monthly discussion group about the book Engendering Judaism, which imagines a religious practice that equally embraces the concepts of male and female. Chapter 3 considers liturgy, and suggests that inclusion of the matriarchs in the Amidah "fetishizes" (author Rachel Adler's word) the concept by assuming this one addition will solve all other gender-related prayer issues. The chapter is packed with ideas, but I was struck by one in particular on this first read: how to draw the line between keva (the fixed rules, tradition) and kavannah (intention) when reconfiguring prayer to be more inclusive?

I should preface this by saying that the idea of a feminist approach to Judaism is challenging to me in some ways. This sounds a little ridiculous, because my observance now embodies that approach. And I grew up in a synagogue where women had no roles relating to public prayer, so by rights I should be doubly conscious of my freedom these days. But I never felt marginalized, neither then then nor now in retrospect, because I didn't really care. The synagogue was equally uninspiring to all genders.

When I re-entered the Jewish world, it took me awhile to get used to the idea of women on the bima. I was also less bothered by this scenario than by my reaction, which made no sense in light of everything else I believed and lived. Eventually I understood that my discomfort was of the keva/kavannah variety: I had never seen it before, so it seemed wrong. I only knew a "liturgical field" (as Rachel Adler explains) that omitted women, so this version didn't seem like prayer at all. Over time, as I grew more accustomed to the concept, I was able to see past keva to kavannah--and as I moved from the congregation to the bima itself, couldn't imagine a more natural way to pray.

I also rarely thought about the words I was saying. Perhaps if I had understood more nuances of the language during those first times I truly experienced prayer, I might have been bothered enough to seek out a feminist response like Engendering Judaism.

(Continued here.)

Monday, February 04, 2008

619. Vote!

I am behind in everything today... work, Hebrew homework, answering a pile of email... so all I have time to say is: if you happen to live in a state with an election tomorrow, vote! Early and often! The fate of the world depends upon it. I never really believed my teachers when they said this, but this year it's absolutely true. If all goes according to plan, which rarely happens but I do try, I'll be one of the first at my polling place so I can begin the day with a sense of accomplishment, knowing I did my part to fix this current mess.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

618. Naked bathers

Because my day was split between the gym, where I watched "America's Next Top Model" on the little treadmill TV, and work, where I attempted to design a website for 20-something male hip-hop fans, my spiritual muscles are a little atrophied at the moment. So in lieu of words of Torah, here instead are words of Google. The most popular searches to get to my blog:

percoset (the leader by far)
sunbreeze oil
ani l'dodi v'dodi li
baruch dayan emet
shiva minyan
song of ascents
el maleh rahamim

Somewhat predictable. The following phrases which brought their single searchers to this blog, less so:

aliya gumby (um, I think only human beings are eligible...)

barbarino family in lodi nj

vinnie barbarino hot photos (maybe they're stashed in the attic in Lodi...)

can you break a washing machine by over filling it? (Yes.)

can i sit on a leather couch on tisha beav (Yes.)

dentist bad pain mad fingers chair neck (I'm sorry.)

embarrassing cantor singing (I'm sorry.)

i think my washing machine burnt out (I'm sorry.)

false pretenses for oriental rug (That's terrible.)

goosebumps kavannah (That's wonderful!)

havdalah set - dental theme (uh...)

how to write a paragraph for a patient in a dentist chair while listening to music and hearing drilling in your ears (I hope I was able to be of some help.)

how to sleep with your sister-in-law

pews are supposed to be uncomfortable (They are, especially while you're sleeping with your sister-in-law. Serves you right.)

i'm here (Hi.)

what's my torah portion? (I don't know.)

why are so many buildings under scaffolding new york city (I don't know.)

scottish lullaby with the word torah in it (I'll email Rabbi MacDonald.)

blog naked bathers (None of that here, but how about some Torah, instead? Hello?)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

617. Praying With Lior

I just got back from watching an extraordinary movie. Praying With Lior is about a boy with Down Syndrome who, with the support of his family and community, is preparing for his bar mitzvah. It sounds like the kind of Hallmark card-style film I would do my best to avoid, or catch on Lifetime as a guilty pleasure. It is neither of these things--it's art, complex and beautiful, a story of honesty, pain, loss, and closeness to God. Lior, as the title suggests, loves to pray--he is in fact a praying prodigy, his disability causing many deficits but also breaking down usual barriers to spiritual expression. When he sings, he seems to have a direct line to God. Although focusing on a Jewish coming-of-age ritual, Praying With Lior is about love, not religion, the story of a perceptive, witty young man blessed to be born into an amazing family.

Filmmaker Ilana Trachtman happened to meet Lior and his family in 2003 at a spiritual retreat center, which ended up changing her life in the form of this film. (Watch carefully and you'll recognize some leaders of the Reconstructionist and Renewal worlds praying along with Lior.)

If you're in New York City and reading this on Sunday, go immediately to Cinema Village on E. 12th St. This weekend's ticket sales will determine how long the film is booked in New York and elsewhere. (All of last night's shows were sold out, an excellent sign.) Praying With Lior will be at Cinema Village throughout the week, and then move on to film festivals all over the place.

I left the theater feeling cleansed and purified, as if the movie stripped away the non-essential pieces that clogged my soul. I hope one day I can be honest enough with myself and with God to be able to pray like Lior, as well.

Friday, February 01, 2008

616. Freedom

This week's parasha is Misphatim ("judgments"), which includes laws relating to slavery. An Israelite slave, explained the rabbi at services, must be liberated upon seven years of service, just as debts are forgiven after that same period of time. But what if the slave doesn't want freedom, if he or she loves her master so much that she chooses to stay? The Torah allows for this, and instructs the slave to stand against a doorpost and receive a kind of ear piercing from her master. That mark will indicate her status as a willing, happy slave.

The number seven, as in so many customs in the Torah, suggests a meaning beyond the literal. We rest--are freed from work--on Shabbat, the seventh day. And we turn to the door at the end of the Lekha Dodi prayer on Friday night to welcome the Shabbat bride, symbol of the perfect world to come. We look with longing at that doorpost--but is it because we want to be free, or are afraid to leave the room? I'm sure some slaves stayed on because they had become beloved family members over the years. But others couldn't imagine life on the outside, the uncertainty and difficult choices that came along with happiness, and so chose to remain tethered.

We face the same dilemma each week, said the rabbi. We can accept the freedom we're given in the form of Shabbat, a day to rest and forget our burdens, or be pierced against the doorpost--what, ignore email? leave my cell phone at home? how is that possible?--and convince ourselves slavery is the better option. It sounds like a no-brainer, but is not an easy choice at all. We--I--derive our identity from being connected. Disengagement feels like drowning, losing one's bearings completely, dizzy with no ground in sight. But when you do it, and discover how nice it is to float, how calm and sane, you want to stay that way forever, as at the end of the Amidah: "Help me to extend the joy of Shabbat to the other days of the week, until I attain the goal of deep joy always."