Monday, March 31, 2008

661. Legal, part 1

When I first started writing this blog, I was helping with Friday night services once every six weeks or so. But these days we have an abundance of rabbinic students whose job is to learn how to lead (vs. me, a plain old volunteer), and since 2006 I've been called two or three times a year. Since I loved it so much, and am a festering cauldron of insecurity, I became paranoid and wondered if I screwed up or fell out of favor. I drove a number of my friends, and myself, crazy--and also knew, deep down, that I had no reason for doubt. I am good at this; not perfect, because I'm human, but also not too shabby.

I'm all better now (I think). I've come to understand the need to remain calm and balanced in life, a priority for quite some time--but intellectual knowing is different from emotional awareness. With balance comes the skill of worrying about only what deserves the effort. Turning a gift like the chance to lead services or chant Torah into an indulgence of angst is a sin, a waste of goodness, and steals energy from other important things.

So chalk up yet another life-changing lesson learned from the act of standing in front of people and singing. (What kind of human would I be if I never found my synagogue? I can scarcely imagine.) I tried to put this awareness into play on Friday, when I helped lead (for the 21st time--legal now, I guess) with the rabbi whose energy feels like a gust of wind. But I no longer fear being knocked over; now I can breathe it in and use it to become stronger.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

660. Criminal

I'm back again, not that I ever left--I apparently needed more than a week to catch my breath. And a busy week it was.

Purim, first of all: weird, entertaining, exhausting, and I caught a mysterious bug right afterwards and slept for two days straight. But that didn't make it any less fun. Also, despite chanting chapters 4, 5 and 6 last year (and 4 and 6 the year before--and 6 the year before that), those chapters did not seem any shorter. In fact, they appear to be getting longer as time passes. I'm already scared of next year.

This phenomenon did not stand in the way of my having a blast, however. I dressed as "The Recession," a costume inspired by the wonderful class I took on the music and meaning of the holiday. As I mused last week, commentators have framed Purim as a stage upon which to explore our struggles with good and evil--to allow the weaker force to sneak in or out and trade places with the stronger. One of my less pretty sides these days is an unhealthy obsession with how to make a living, a worry affording convenient escape from other pressing issues with which I prefer not to deal. I'm not thrilled with this part of myself and am trying to change, so decided to make fun of the whole enterprise. I wore a fire-engine-red wig (red = debt) festooned with torn-up dollar bills. (REAL bills. Yes, I destroyed $3; I broke the law! Some people were very upset by this, as if I had desecrated a holy document. In fact, it was the most economical way to make my costume; xeroxing the bills would have cost more than $3. With each slightly shocked reaction, I became more perversely satisfied with myself for the idea.) I wore a big chain around my neck from which dangled (fake) cut-up credit cards. Not everyone got the concept, but I really did feel like I had exorcised a demon.

I chanted again the following morning, all three chapters without a break. (The evening's proceedings were punctuated by much offensive and entertaining shtick.) My head spun; it was an awful lot of singing, all without notes or vowels. Oddly, though, dozens of verses of Esther are still easier to learn than a handful of Torah. The rhythms of the music, and the words themselves, seem to flow from a more natural and conversational place.

Onward to Pesah, and the beginning of the cycle of holidays once again.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

659. Roads

I am back after a few days of catching my breath after the 2 1/2 month marathon (relatively speaking). Apologies to anyone who thought I was leaving for good--never! Just returning to my old not-daily blogging schedule. Meanwhile, I've been practicing Esther ch. 4, 5 and 6 and attempting to fashion a somewhat dark and conceptual costume. We shall see if anyone actually understands it. Even if not, I will have the satisfaction of sartorially expressing some specific frustrations.

Last night at the wonderful class I've been taking about Purim, we studied an interpretation by 16th century Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague (author of the golem tales, also stories about hiding and revealing). Esther, he wrote, cried out twice to God, but God did not respond. Then she exclaimed: "Eli, Eli, why have You abandoned me?" No answer after the first two occasions she could understand; maybe God was really busy. But by the third--surely "the order of the world had been altered." Something was not right. So Esther decided to take matters into her own hands, and put into motion the events that saved her fellow Jews.

Was God really gone? Maybe God knew that by standing back, an even better kind of redemption would happen than if had He done all the work. And could Esther have made her bold move if she wasn't masked? She was known by two names, Esther and Hadassah. Which persona was closer to her true heart? Did being hidden allow a part of her to shine that the "real," quotidian Esther could not reveal? We also discussed a passage from Talmud about evil:

Descendants of Haman learned Torah in Bene Berak...
--Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 57b

and a response by Rabbi Loew:

Know this: the evil ones, when they are exceedingly evil, they obtain superior strength, except they desire defilement, and the superior strength desires holiness. All superior strength is from God, and has a side of holiness, and in Haman's seed this force was found...

In other words, the seeds of goodness that came to life in generations of Torah scholars may well have had their origins in the strongest forces of evil. God fuels both kinds of energy. Within ourselves, which side do we allow to be passive, and which active? When we do not hear a response to our prayers and get frustrated with God--is that the good the or evil inclination? Or a bit of both?

I read these passages and remembered my confusion after 9/11. As soon as I discovered, a few years earlier, that I believed in God, I became so intoxicated by the idea that I refused to imagine a God who was not completely good. I rationalized that bad things happened elsewhere, in other lives, because of a vague "absence of God"--even though I also believed in no such thing. I waited for a sensible explanation to appear, and in the meantime enjoyed my naiveté. But when evil visited my own back yard, I could no longer reconcile this position. Like Esther, at first I felt lonely, abandoned--God was gone. Then, after awhile, I remembered that God was the creator of both good and bad. It seemed God was trying to push us in the direction of the good, but ultimately the road we followed was our own choice.

On this Purim I hope we can all struggle in good humor with the conundrum, and (with the help of laughter, fattening desserts, and maybe a little alcohol) shake out of our systems a need to follow the bad--for now, at least.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

658. Farewell, Blog 365

So this was a good experiment, and I proved to myself that I can find the discipline to write every day if I really try. But it's also good to go about life without imagining how every experience can be translated into a post. I think a few substantive paragraphs a week, my original intention, makes more sense rather than feeling forced to fill up space. And perhaps I will pick another month of the year and commit to NaBloPoMo.

Meanwhile, back to our regularly scheduled week--shavu'a tov!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

657. For Purim: brilliant

Costumes, feh--this is all one really needs to read the Megillah on Purim:

It's not a yad, it's a regel

(And in keeping with the upside-down spirit of the holiday, of course this post is dated before her post even appeared!)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

656. Her shrapnel

I seem to be stuck these past weeks on the idea of being hidden and revealed. Along those lines, here's a wonderful blogger I recently discovered whose ability to reveal honestly, and with insight and humor, I greatly admire (envy, even):

My Shrapnel

From the sidebar on the right:

I am, of course, neither sad, nor heroic nor particularly victimized. What I am is an "ordinary Joe" who was seriously injured six years ago in a suicide bombing while waiting for a bus at the Machane Yehuda open air market in Jerusalem.

Click on "What this blog is about":

There are days when I feel like I am such a disappointment. Everyone wants to know what it is like to be blown up, and I have nothing to give them but a simple timeline comprised of three seconds. Second number one I was standing. I lost second number two. Second number three found me on the ground, conscious. I woke up stunned, but calm, and stayed that way. That is the whole story. But people persist in wanting more. I am questioned thoroughly. Surely I left something out: ...

And much more like this. It is sometimes funny, sometimes painful writing on a topic we all need to read about.

Monday, March 10, 2008

654. Growing up

This past Shabbat morning in honor of Rosh Hodesh Adar II, the beginning of the month of Purim, we studied the midrash about God offering the Torah to the people Israel by suspending a mountain over their heads upside down, like a big Hershey’s Kiss. (The rabbi didn’t use those exact words, but it’s the picture I’ve always had in my mind’s eye.) Accept my word, said God, or I’ll drop this big thing and you'll perish. So the Torah became ours, even though we didn’t have a choice in the matter. The celebration of Purim, in comparison, is a mitzvah given to one another by mankind rather than by God:

The Jews confirmed and accepted upon themselves and their descendants, and all who might join them, to observe these two days in the manner prescribed and at the proper time each year.
—Esther 9:27

By the time of Esther, we’ve grown up and learned how to exercise free will. God is still present but much more subtly, just as our parents always remain in our lives even after we learn to act autonomously. So according to this interpretation, it makes perfect sense that God's name to is absent from Megillat Esther. Purim, the last in the cycle of holidays before they begin again with Pesah and the story of our liberation, signifies a new connection to God out of maturity and understanding rather than fear:

On Purim they accepted the Torah out of love.
—Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810), Kedushat Levi

The celebration of Purim is in essence because Israel accepted the Torah again.
—Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschutz (1690-1764), Ye’arot Devash

For this reason the holiday will remain even when God has no need for others; God wants to commemorate our love more than anything else. I think the rabbi read my mind when he offered these teachings, because I spent much of the week pondering the kind of God I believe in. Not doubting, not at all, but trying to understand the representations that most move me. Last week in an ongoing discussion group about the book Engendering Judaism, we talked about the image we consider during prayer. Did it have a name (HaShem, “compassion,” The Eternal)? A feeling (empowerment, pleading, embrace)? I concluded that I speak to “God," a default title for my conception of the nameless. I often envision natural phenomena: wind, sand, warmth, light. And I find little connection to concepts like “God as judge” (in the Unetane Tokef High Holy Day prayer, for example), Whom I imagine as harsh rather than benevolent or parental. I resonate with a God of Forgiveness more than other poetic descriptions.

And I see this image in the God of Purim, Who appeared out of a second chance taken once we grew up and learned more about ourselves, and Who is kind enough to step back and let us make our own mistakes.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

653. The Shabbat of Inventory

I decided that a better name for this past Shabbat, instead of Parashat Pekudei/Shabbat Shekalim, would be The Shabbat of Inventory. We read from three scrolls: 1. More little jeweled parts of the tabernacle. 2. In honor of Rosh Hodesh, many words about about the details of sacrifices, bulls of pleasant odor, etc. 3. In honor of Shabbat Shekalim the injunction, once again, to give a half shekel when the census is taken.

I imagine a bright, sunny day in ancient Jerusalem, and a wealthy pillar of the community who’s too busy to go to the marketplace on Monday or Thursday to hear the public chanting of Torah. He sends his assistant instead, a skinny, nervous guy right out of scribe school, to report on the words of the week. “Take notes!" commands the boss. And so young Mr. Scribe comes prepared with ink and parchment scraps and scratches furiously away, trying not to miss a detail. Was that two gold rings or 22? Exactly how many bulls? He can’t write fast enough, but manages to commit the rest to memory (he hopes). He wishes God would get His act together and invent IM so he can ask Shloime on the other side of the fishmonger’s stand what the meturgeman really said. He goes back to the old man’s big tent and recites the entire inventory. Reb Businessman is pleased, and presents his first daughter as a wife in gratitude.* And thus words of Torah were passed down from generation to generation, actual numbers of bulls perhaps fudged but the meaning behind them always ripe for interpretation.
* I have no idea if the above description is plausible, but it was fun to imagine.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

652. Kol isha

This past Friday evening I went to services at a very different synagogue than usual—an Orthodox congregation. This particular shul and mine share many more similarities than differences, our practice of prayer both based on music, song, and deep ruah. (Although they don't use instruments, of course.) In fact, we would not exist had not this community paved the way for a revival of old-fashioned, neo-Hasidic-style ecstasy.

But they are still Orthodox, and I had to sit behind a mehitza. I can bear to do this once every few years. I listened to beautiful male harmonies coming from the bima, a sound I love in the word of secular music, but all I could really hear was the missing female voice. (Which surprised me because, all things considered, I prefer to hear men sing rather than women.) I harmonized quietly to fill in the gap, afraid to raise my voice lest I inadvertently offend someone on the other side of the room who subscribed to the idea of kol isha.

I was honored to pray with this deeply spiritual community, and of course respected their practices—and was reminded of my own, a very long time ago. The first time I came to my synagogue, I was unnerved by the sight of a woman leading services; although I didn’t live in the Orthodox world, I never forget the rules I knew as a child. Breaking them, even years later, felt transgressive. But I got used to it, and soon could imagine no other way for the universe to be. Sitting in a room where this right did not exist felt like it had been stolen from me on a personal level.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Thursday, March 06, 2008

650. Hope

As is evident, I didn't have a whole to to say this week... too much work, a little bit of angst... but others had a lot on their minds. Please read this short post about why, even in light of yesterday's horrible events, we can find hope at the start of this new month. (The section of the Purim story Rebbi Leibowitz references--when Mordechai mourns--is, coincidentally, from a part of the Megillah I will be chanting. So those words are in the forefront of my mind these days.)

How can we be happy this Rosh Chodesh?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

649. Jewish enough?

Very interesting article in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine:

How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?

If you want to get married in Israel, you'd better be able to present hard proof that you're Jewish. But there's that pesky problem of generations of Americans raised in the Reform or Conservative traditions--who, even after they make aliyah, are still not sufficiently kosher for Israeli Orthodox rabbis, the civil as well as religious arbiters of this sort of thing. One slightly radical Orthodox rabbi has taken on the task of sleuth, digging up photos of crumbling headstones and affidavits from far-flung shuls to attest that a marrying couple's grandparents did, in fact, attend. In theory, I appreciate Israel's exacting standards. In practice, it is achieving the exact opposite of what we all want and need, a Jewish people who are one and can live with each other in peace.

(Could I prove I was Jewish? Well, I have my parents' ketubah, marriage contract, and get, certificate of religious divorce, but the rabbis who signed them are long gone from this world, and I'd have to attest to their Jewishness. I could probably track down someone from my father's old synagogue, but what if he wasn't on the Israeli list of "approved" rabbis? And Judaism is matrilinear, in any case, so I'd need to present my mother's background. A photo of her headstone would show her father's Yiddish name, useless... and the town where they grew up is now under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, so no synagogue records remain. So maybe I'm not Jewish enough, either.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

648. Six words

Without ideas about what to write tonight, I went to Bloglines for some inspiration and discovered this post about writing your memoir in six words. The idea originated with an NPR story about an online magazine article that posed the same question to celebrities (Stephen Colbert: Well, I thought it was funny) as well as the not-so-famous (Love me or leave me alone, scrawled on a hand dryer in a public bathroom). Here are some others. I though for a few minutes and came up with this for myself:

She made art and always wondered.

It's a good challenge; you end up sort of free-associating about what's at the tip of your mind, yet don't have a enough words at your disposal to make any conclusions. Life is like that sometimes.

Monday, March 03, 2008

647. Goodness

I was all set to write a slightly morose post about my recent visit to Queens (borough of origin, 20 minutes and a million years away), and then found out that someone did the nicest thing for me. An anonymous act of kind and thoughtful generosity. I am overwhelmed, which I hope the messenger will convey to this unknown person. So I can't talk about anything depressing right now--maybe in a day or two. Sometimes expansive, explosive goodness seems to fill the world so thoroughly that I can't imagine there's any room left for evil. And for fleeting moments, I believe there is not.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

646. Unplugged

I had a nice, unplugged weekend that began with a concert by an a cappella group that figured prominently in a past life. I was a little worried about stepping back in time, but as soon as they began to sing all the muscles in my shoulders unclenched, and a weeks' worth of tension drifted up and out of the old stone church like mist. In New York there's often a fine line between amateur and professional musicians, and my goal was always to confound the experts and sound just like the real thing. But I remembered last night why I love listening to avocational groups--I want to hear a little insecurity, a few flubbed notes. I like being reminded that we're all human. Sometimes the professionals are just too good, and the soul of the sound seems to disappear.

And this morning, as I sat here wishing I could convene a marathon William Billings sing-in and remain offline for the rest of the week, I read yet another article about the (new! radical!) "secular Sabbath":

I Need a Virtual Break. No, Really.

I applaud the author for working 70 hours a week instead of 80. Maybe one day he'll reach a mere 60. We all need to to be amateurs every once in awhile, drift off key, even forget the notes.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

645. Nerves

I chanted a big chunk of Torah two weeks ago and was cool as a cucumber. But today, a return to old problems: clammy palms, quaking knees, a voice that shook until I remembered breathing was a part of singing. People told me I sounded fine and my nerves weren't evident, but I noticed them and was annoyed. Perhaps I am too self-critical--but I aim to have fun up there. I want the act of chanting to reflect my joy at being among friends and in the safest place in the universe. This morning I had hoped to savor the words about Bezalel, with whom I feel kinship as an artist. But I think my body remembered distant experiences with lengthy parashiot and reacted as if in crisis, although my mind said otherwise. I was completely exhausted by the time I sat down.

I've come to the conclusion that I'm most unsure about my singing after weeks that end with lots of stuff still unresolved. No matter that I'm usually ecstatic on Shabbat morning, loving the God-sanctioned gift of putting burdens aside--I may not consciously think of my tsuris du jour, but it's still in my bones, lungs, and voice. Talk about hiding and revealing: I am completely unable to dissemble while reading Torah. This is because I'm naked (figuratively, thank goodness, but that doesn't make it any easier). Naked can be terrifying, like those dreams about giving speeches, or freeing, like skinny-dipping in the ocean. Chanting feels like a combination of both.

I never get nervous while leading services, a much bigger deal--but there are rabbis, musicians, and a siddur full of vowels to lean on if necessary. Chanting Torah requires trust in myself alone--my ear, my memory--and when I'm short of self-confidence in other parts of life, the doubt spills over.

I think chanting Torah is also trying to teach me the words of the Mei HaShiloah that we studied on Friday night:

Shabbat is in every mitzvah in which is found the intention for the sake of Heaven... It was also present in the work of the Tabernacle, which was performed for the glory of Heaven [which is why the laws of Shabbat are mentioned in this week's parasha before the instructions about building the Tabernacle].

In other words, you can't do anything with all your heart and soul unless you first figure out how to relax. When I remain calm, and create silence and space in which my rational mind can overrule my subconscious, I am much better at offering my particular gifts.

I think the reading of the Torah never ceases, week after week, year after year, because we need all that time to observe ourselves in its mirror. And for me it's not just the interpretation of those words that reveals change and growth, but their actual utterances. I get an extra layer to figure out. Lucky me.

I don't mean that sarcastically. What a gift!--I just need to get better at using it.