Thursday, May 29, 2008

683. Names

I'm chanting my favorite list on Shabbat (and this morning, too). I've chanted many lists; most do not give me great joy. I've read about kosher animals, skin diseases, sins, sacrifices, and more kosher animals (repeated at least twice in different books of the Torah; God must really be serious about this one). But I like reading the names of the tribes who set out in the wilderness, bemidbar. That they made it from one edge of the dusty desert to the other (whether historically or in myth, no matter) and (biologically or spiritually) became my progenitors is reason enough to recall their names thousands of years after the fact. I always feel like like I'm shaking their hands and offering awed congratulations whenever I read this particular list.

I've chanted this aliyah, and the very beginning of the book of Bemidbar, three times in past years. This makes the third book of the Torah I've begun since Simhat Torah; maybe I'll fill in the other two when this triennial cycle rolls around again in 2010. Why the start of this one so often and never Vayikra or Devarim? Same reason I've yet to sing "Hazak, hazak!" and end anything: who knows. (Nor am I concerned. The middles of all these books are quite satisfying.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

682. Notes

Last week at a class about Shavuot, we were handed a sheet full of notes. I was momentarily shocked--musical notation for prayer? Is such a thing allowed? Then I remembered the many dog-eared pages I lugged around each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during the five years I sang in the synagogue choir, and the relief I felt during my first rehearsal. There are notes here, whew! No matter my lack of experience singing in Hebrew--now I can do anything.

But since I began chanting Torah, and then helping lead services, I've learned everything by ear from CDs. The arrangements are written down (the instrumentalists have them), but my job is part of an oral tradition. After many years of judging my musical abilities--even, at times, my self-worth--by my proficiency at sight-singing, I was suddenly back at the beginning. I had to learn by ear how to communicate phrase by phrase, melody by melody, rather than trust that these elements would be conveyed automatically once I mastered the component parts.

At first I felt superior to the whole process; after all, I had long since graduated from this method. But it wasn't easy, especially having to sing like myself rather than the voice on the CD. Attempts to copy slavishly made the music sound derivative and soulless, a shallow parroting back. Eventually I learned what conductors and coaches had been trying to tell me for ages: key signatures aren't just sets of instructions, but particular, idiosyncratic landscapes. Phrasing matters because it conveys not only grammar, but also brushstrokes of sound that go in specific directions just as on a canvas. This is even more important when singing words that the listener (and, in many cases, the singer) doesn't fully understand. Kavannah, intention, is built into the the music, into its hills, waves, stretches of roads, dead ends, that can't be seen if you're concentrating on putting one step in front of the next.

I think my long affair with notes is one reason why I sometimes panic at the bima when faced with a scroll full of naked letters. I forget that I can now see and travel much farther than before.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

681. Shaking the tree

Memorial Day: I worked a little, watched mindless and relaxing TV (I love LAW & ORDER marathons; when else can you see the good guys win so many times in a row?), and sat in Riverside Park to write and enjoy the perfect early summer sun. I also read this sad article in The Jewish Week:

Separating From Synagogue

in which the author, feeling isolated and shunned, leaves her community after its demographics and politics shift. I count my blessings daily that this will never happen to me--at least I don't think so. The article left me wondering about how we often attribute these kinds of splits to "us" vs. "them": I disagree with their points of view, so I can't stay here. They were wrong to ignore me, so I don't like them any more. I know I'm drastically simplifying the issues involved, and in no way fault the author for her reaction. Rather, I blame the general culture of many religious communities (I don't think Judaism has a lock on this problem). Hierarchies that must exist for organizations to thrive also create inner and outer circles, places where one might feel alone or devalued while also ostensibly a member. Attempts to change the status quo and build a structure where everyone takes responsibility, reaches out, and can receive no matter what their status, family, history, ability to donate, etc., are often discouraged because they challenge tradition; rituals of community behavior are as powerful as those of prayer.

The situation is very different at my synagogue, where innovation is the norm and tradition is sometimes jarred to the point of discomfort. People have been known to leave because things are too different, too often. But I like that feeling after the tree is shaken, fruit falls to the ground, and everyone realizes that the best option, aside from going hungry, is to sit around and eat together.

Monday, May 26, 2008

680. Retreat, rebuke

The retreat was great--thought-provoking, challenging, at times painful, but also inspiring, and full of love and amazing women. I should have known better than to hold pre-conceived notions about anything that goes on at my synagogue. As I learned that lesson, I was also glad to have time to think about this recent one while away from usual surroundings. I felt bad not only about being scolded, but also about admitting to myself that respected teachers can have bad days just like anyone else. I believe the response was disproportionate to the severity of my mistake. So be it; onward.

Even the best of us can rush to anger. In this past week's Torah portion, Behukotai, God scolds the Israelites and threatens all sorts of scary and overwrought punishments. As I listened to verses read quickly and in a whisper (so they would be over with as soon as possible, although we broke tradition by giving the aliyah to congregants; generally the rabbi takes it because no one else wants to), I looked down and noticed my yad on the pew, waiting for me to carry it up to the bima and chant. The yad usually makes me smile, a reminder of my sweet friends, the goodness of what it will soon underline, and the general silliness of the idea of a little finger at the end of a skinny silver stick. On Shabbat morning, however, it seemed to point in reproof: "J'accuse!" (In Hebrew. I don't think it speaks French.) It focused like a laser at my sins of needless worry, excessive work, and not breathing in enough late spring, honeysuckle-scented air. It demanded I chill out or suffer the consequences, the inability to enjoy a really great Shabbat. I was so surprised by its audacity that I didn't remember to be nervous as I stood at the bima, and forgot my fear of stumbling over the the trop of seven p'sukim out of ten that began with "im" ["if"], all with a different melody on that word. I also got the choreography right this time around. The rabbi still didn't look very happy, but the yad managed to gets its message across while shining as bright as always.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

679. "And it was good."

I am surrounded by beauty even as I sit in my apartment--not the lovely walls desperately crying for a paint job, but the orange sunset out my window. Cats curling up next to each other like apostrophes. But nothing at this moment is more beautiful thank the little symbol in the upper right-hand corner of my laptop menu bar: five sold, curved lines radiating out from each other with confidence and conviction.

Over the last few days I've logged enough hours on the phone to earn a certificate in wireless technology. I've spoken to many nice people in India and California, and some not so nice. I also discovered that so many networks are now vying for bandwidth in this general vicinity that the signal in my apartment can no longer reach from one end to the other, as it has for years, without the 8021.X equivalent of vitamins (or Viagra). My name is doubtless on few companies' phone support versions of the Ten Most Wanted list and (partly to make amends for losing my temper) I now own two shiny, new pieces of equipment with flashing lights. At this point I would really rather go back to the world of pencils, paper and carrier pigeons.

Still, I'm typing these words from the comfy chair in my bedroom, just like in the old days. I wish I could reclaim the lovely, sunny Sunday I lost while repeatedly plugging and unplugging, but can't complain. Back to our regularly-scheduled posts about singing and stuff.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

678. Router-less

I was at a great retreat this weekend, and have much to say... but I've been without a router these past couple of days (the magical bit of equipment that lets me connect to the Internet via my laptop), have not had time to go to the library in search of a signal, and cannot for the life of me write anything creative as I sit here at my desk, surrounded by work. Ah, the days when all we all made do with pencil and paper. The magical box should arrive today; more to come soon.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

677. Tunnel

I've been meaning to write about a shiva minyan I led a few weeks ago. I wasn't feeling well, had a cold, and had to rush to get there on time after a class. I was worried I might be too tired to react with composure to the brokenness I would surely feel in the room. But I happened to know some of these mourners personally, and it was the last day of shiva--most of the tears had already been shed. Everyone was ready for stories about the deceased, and didn't want them to end. So I listened and laughed for over an hour, and by the end could pretty much see a guy in a grey fedora sitting in the corner, smiling along with us. I sang a few prayers, almost incidentally. Maybe because my head was all stuffed up, I had an image at that moment of life as tunnel, a slow, claustrophobic passage from one place to the next. (Or perhaps Rabbi Nachman's "narrow bridge.") But I don't think death is empty, like the Lincoln Tunnel at 3:00AM. Rather, other people fill that same space with our stories. It still belongs to individual souls, as it did when they were alive, and remains as crowded as rush hour, but with memories instead of actions.

I'm leading another shiva minyan later this evening and, for the first time since I've been doing this, I knew the deceased. Not well, but he was very funny and supportive of me, always joking whenever I happened to lead: "So, are you taking over yet?" Attempting to relate this week's Torah portion to his life, or even to ideas about community or consolation, seems in this case artificial and distant. I think I will just talk a bit about his smile, and sit back and enjoy the stories--there will be many.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

676. Set me as a seal

inspired by Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs 8:6

Set me as a seal upon your heart
As I bridge the span between your hand and my breath.
My touch is fire on wax, melting into gaps between letters
until cool air fashions a brittle shield
to keep you safe, or hidden.

Shun me as a knife to your heart
Or as pinpricks of secrets, blood drawn by my finger.

Like a lamb caught in a thicket of twigs,
You emerged, scratched and worn, and stumbled to a brook
and found me in the water.
I warmed you like a newborn, but you hid your eyes in branches
and forgot how my fire could burn.

Once on my birthday, under the moon, you bathed my words in rose petals
and then traced them at sunrise with a long stem,
taking care to avoid the thorns.
Your fear made me cry; the salt of my tears stung your open wound.

You ran away, now strong as a gazelle
but afterwards allowed me to knit together your ragged edges.
The seal I set in your heart breaks again, and again
my touch thaws and heals.

I don't know what's come over me lately with all this poetry, which has kept me busy during a number of long subway rides. (And extended a trip on Sunday by more than an hour, when I paid no attention to where I was going.) This one is perhaps over the top, but I had fun imagining what my yad (in cahoots with the Torah) might say if it had a little mouth at its end right next to the hand. (The rose petal line refers to Shavuot morning a few years ago when I read Torah using a long-stemmed rose as a yad.) I woke up on Sunday thinking of the Song of Songs, hearing it as set in a beautiful choral piece I once sung. But I couldn't get beyond the first line ("Set me as a seal upon your heart"), and began to wonder if a seal was good or bad; too much adoration can feel like imprisonment.

Mature relationships are much harder to navigate than the flush of new love. I though of my first discoveries of Torah, seven or eight years ago--I was ecstatic, and every word seemed to drip with enlightenment. But over time I saw the raw and difficult parts, and began to engage in a familiar back-and-forth dance of desire and rejection. True understanding of the deepest, most hidden aspects of a person, or of the Torah, means accepting one another's strengths and weaknesses, anger and joy, safety and fear, and understanding that you will both grow and change. (Or, as they say on Facebook about relationships, "It's Complicated.") In the end, the words are still there waiting patiently no matter what.

Monday, May 12, 2008

675. Chello


Last week, much to my frustration, I realized I didn't have time to participate in two great learning opportunities this summer. The first was a class on the poetry of Abraham Joshua Heschel; the second, a course on the Book of Ruth, where we'd do a word-by-word translation. After a year of studying Biblical Hebrew I'm now theoretically capable of this, hard to believe. Both classes were in my Treo until I finally admitted I needed to spend at least part of the next few months doing less rather than more, and also leave time open for things like learning last-minute Torah portions. I can never say no to that.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking about spelling (what graphic designers do when their brains are fried from looking at too many typefaces)—specifically, about what I call the "Politics of Chet," the Hebrew letter "chet" (above). I work for a number of Jewish organizations across the religious and political spectrum, and each one transliterates Hebrew a bit differently. Like someone juggling multiple lovers and trying to avoid blurting out the wrong name at an inopportune moment, I have to keep track of these competing schemes. There's an official way, extraordinarily complicated, which has spawned infinite stylistic interpretations. Much of the confusion centers around the many letters of the Hebrew alphabet representing "ch" (the sound you make when clearing your throat). Each instance is supposed to be notated differently, but since most Americans with a bad Hebrew School education, like myself, have no idea how to spell in Hebrew, those "ch" sounds--and particularly the letter "chet"--are transliterated without rhyme or reason. How one spells also seems to have deeper political meaning, like the significance of kippot styles in Israel (knitted or velvet? black or in color? etc).

Here are my completely unscientific and tongue-in-cheek observations of the Politics of Chet.

If you transliterate the letter "chet" as "ch," you probably
--are either Orthodox leaning to the right, Conservative but from a traditional synagogue, classically Reform (i.e., choir and big organ at services), Renewal
--heard your grandparents speaking Yiddish
--think that "h” with a little dot under it looks ridiculous
--have no patience for odd variants and spell words the way they sound, end of story.

If you transliterate it as "h with an underline" or "h with a dot," you probably
--are either Orthodox leaning to the left, Conservative from a synagogue with lots of social action programs, Reform and planning a congregational trip to Israel next week, Renewal (included in both categories since all spellings are beautiful and mystical in their own way)
--are Israeli
--are a little obsessed with grammar
--know how to add a custom character to a font so you can actually type an “h with a dot under it.”

If you transliterate it as just plain “h”, no dot, underline or preceding “c,” you are definitely Israeli and think Americans are wusses for needing silly things like vowels or dots to figure out how words sound.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

674. Letters

Letters on the scroll

Sometimes the letters look like smiles leaning on one another
Each curve reaching out to grab the end of the next
like the hand of a child finding her mother's as they cross the street

Sometimes they bump together, crowded
little black birds on a wire vying for space, trying to push the last into the canyon
or the end letter stretches languidly, a cat
luxuriating in her ability to expand and touch the edge.

Above the sacrifices,
long tracks like scattered hay dropped for emphasis,
the shadows of a hundred years and a thousand silver fingertips,
remind the letters to keep still, for now.

And the parted sea between them
waits for my eyes and my voice to jump in.

--written mostly on the F train en route to a party in Brooklyn last night.

I wish I could go back a hundred years and watch someone reading from the same scroll I read yesterday morning. What did the letters look like to him? (It had to be a man, back then.) Were they stern, happy? Was the parchment bright white? Did this man come from another country, and did the scroll remind him of his Bar Mitzvah, of the life he left behind? I wish the letters could sing back up at me with these stories.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

673. Choreography

This morning at services I made a mistake involving the choreography of the Torah service--not a big one, but there was a short pause as a result when there shouldn't have been. The rabbi was annoyed, in the nicest possible, instructive way, but annoyed nevertheless. I felt awful, even after I reminded myself many times over that I am human, mistakes are a part of life, my apology was graciously accepted, I learned something new and that's a good thing, and so forth. I still felt awful.

The reader before me did a perfect job, and I had an uncharacteristic moment of panic as I listened to her. I had learned this portion quickly--maybe it hadn't jelled? What if I forgot everything as soon as I got up to the bima? I knew this was very silly, and I wouldn't forget. Unless I did.

But all went well. I love reading Torah, and love everyone involved in creating its surrounding theater. I even love the letters on the parchment, and this morning noticed how happy they looked, the casual, jaunty shapes of their angles and curves just hanging out, waiting to be sung. How silly! I thought--but it made me smile and forget my nerves.

Not entirely, however, nor quite enough to plan a few moments ahead in time. Even after all these years, I sometimes wish there were printed stage directions sitting next to the scroll--stand; step back; no, not now; stay put. I wish I could act as if little were at stake, this is just a walk in the park, while also delighting completely in the drama and glow of the moment. I need to remember the pure restfulness of Shabbat whenever I feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of standing in front of everyone, of trusting my memory, of doing my best to honor my rabbis and friends and, yes, the memories of all those people I still want to make proud even though they are no longer on this earth. It is all good, it is all miraculous, and I think God would like me to chill out and have fun even if I happen to screw up.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

672. God and Frankie Valli

A few days ago I opened the front door and once again there was big, fat Frankie just standing around, waiting. We glared at each other for a minute, and then he turned tail and disappeared. I won, at least this time.

Frankie is a very large black cat (and I mean big--at least 25 lbs.) who lives upstairs on the 14th floor. Frankie's person is a lovely, strange woman who believes cats should be allowed to roam the halls as they please. The management of my building has no issue with this, oddly, and so Frankie spends his days slinking up and down the stairs.

Problem is, the outsides of all apartments look the same, and Frankie can't count. He and I met for the first time about a year ago, when I opened the door one Sunday morning to retrieve the Times and all of a sudden a big, dark... thing ran inside, right over my feet. My first thought: help, it's a beast. I don't know what I meant by that, but it was the only word that came to mind in my state of shock and rapid heartbeat. My second thought: if this is a giant rat, only Moshiach can save us. By the time I reached a third thought I had identified the beast as a cat, as did both my own. A Keystone Cops-style scenario quickly ensued as Don Carlo (18 lbs., all chicken) tried to squeeze behind the refrigerator and Claudio (8 lbs. and fearless) chased the interloper in circles from room to room, and I ran maniacally after them all. She (Claudio is a girl, and just fine with her name) finally cornered him in the bedroom closet, and I slammed the door and tried to figure out what to do next.

I called downstairs to the doorman and asked if he knew of any missing black cats. I do! he answered, and a few minutes later a neighbor knocked on my door. She took one look in the closet--oh, sorry, he's not mine. Yes, there's more than one strange woman in my building who lets her black cat wander the halls. Meanwhile, the beast hissed and cowered behind a pile of shoes. I opened the closet door a crack to shove in a bowl of water, and then decided to sit down and eat my own breakfast in hopes that food would give me more strength to ponder a next move.

Just as I started chewing a forkful of omelet, I heard sounds from the hallway.

"Frankie? Frankie? Frankie Valli? Come to mama! Frankie?"

I opened the door. "Are you looking for a cat?"

"Yes!' said my strange upstairs neighbor. I led her to the closet, where she scooped up the large, shivering animal. He began to purr. "I'm so sorry! He must have gotten confused and thought he was on 14."

I've since pondered this strange invasion and decided that Frankie Valli the cat is very much like God. He (I will use a gendered pronoun in Frankie's honor) often shows up where we least expect Him, and can be frightening. But He's always around, whether we like it or not. We try to reject Him, but He's stubborn. If we show love, so does He. If we spend our lives running away, He still stops by to visit.

Monday, May 05, 2008

671. Omer counting widget

I've just added a great little widget to the bottom of this page that tells you what day of the Omer (and realm of sefira) we are on. (Now I can be absolutely certain of what days I've forgotten.) Many thanks to for creating this!

670. Probuzhna

Last Wednesday evening was the beginning of Yom HaShoah and I meant to go to services, I really did. I never have; my usual excuse is that I'm too shul'd out from Pesah, or that I did not personally lose family members in the Holocaust and, well, nothing. I know this last reason is pretty poor. Basically I'm afraid of getting depressed and being unable to stop crying as I listen to the reading of names.

But this year I came closer to going, and I think I'll stop being a chicken by next year. Although I have no proof, I now believe the second reason isn't true. I recently connected with a cousin of whose existence I never knew (at a memorial service, where else?) who's been doing genealogical research about my mother's side of the family. Last summer he and his mother visited the town where my grandfather (and his grandmother) were born--and where my great-grandfather was a rabbi. I had no idea; this was quite an astounding bit of information to absorb. I never thought my family was anything but peasants. My mother never, ever spoke of her grandfather (I hadn't even known his name), who remained in the Ukraine after his five children emigrated to the U.S. I can only guess that she never heard stories from her own father. Perhaps my grandfather had a difficult relationship with his father; my grandfather was the oldest, which comes with particular challenges if you're living in poverty and oppression. I wish I knew.

Or that I had photos of this rabbi, who was the spiritual leader of a large community. My cousin visited the remains of his synagogue (above), the large shell of which still stands in the small shell of a town. My great-grandmother was from England and her family followers of the same rebbe as my great-grandfather's, so she was imported to the (then) Austro-Hungarian empire when time came for him to marry. She became a grain merchant and, apparently, a successful businesswoman. (Is this why my grandfather was a baker?) She died when her youngest, a daughter, was just six; my great-grandfather grew very close to this particular child, and even took the unprecedented stop of teaching her how to read and write. (Interestingly, my mother was also the youngest of five, and my grandmother also died young--but in Queens, not Europe.)

If I look at this photo and close my eyes I can see dark-eyed women in long skirts waiting outside for their husbands to finish praying on Rosh Hashanah and children in short pants playing on dusty, unpaved streets on a hot day, and men in big black hats milling around, davening, swaying, maybe not so differently than I do.

I Googled in hopes of finding more wonderful information, and came to this link:

On September 30, 1942, 1,500 Jews were transported from Probuzhna to the Belzec Extermination Camp.

My grandfather and all his siblings came to America long before then, and I know my great-grandparents were no longer alive by the 40s. But what of other relatives--did my grandfather have uncles, cousins? What of his congregants, friends, the butcher, the butcher's grandchildren? My grandmother's family? All those who who carried their memories? Surely they counted among the Jews sent to Belzec. I don't know their names to read at a Yom HaShoah service, but they're still part of me.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

669. Holiness

Some thoughts related to this past week's parasha, Kedoshim:

One morning a week I roll out of bed at the crack of dawn or earlier, throw on clothes, and head downtown for a business networking breakfast meeting. If I'm lucky, I wake up before I arrive. Often I walk out the door too late to get there on time via subway, so instead spend an obscene amount of money on a cab.

The cab swings by the Very Big, Fancy Theater where I helped lead High Holy Day services this past fall. The theater is situated inside a glitzy mall, a temple of excess and playground for people who have much more disposable income than I. It looks too new and pretty to be in New York City, but has also redefined the landscape. It's unexpected and shakes up the neighborhood; for that reason alone, despite its essential soullessness, I kind of like this big, slick glass building.

But when I pass by in a cab on Wednesday mornings, I forget about luxury goods in the stores downstairs or $14 million apartments up above. Instead I remember how I felt while praying with and drawing energy from everyone like blood through an IV. I think of deep gold of spotlights against the theater walls, and the park in dusk as seen through a wall of windows as we emerged after Ne'ila. In that instant as the cab speeds past, the building sheds its mask and practically explodes with soul and holiness.

A few years ago during the quietest, most somber part of Yom Kippur afternoon services, the Ner Tamid ("eternal light") above the Ark went out. This is not supposed to happen; like the Olympic Torch, it stays forever lit as ritual proof of the timelessness of Torah. Except the plug got loose, and 2,000 people gasped as one at this display of human and spiritual vulnerability. Not to mention that it kind of destroyed the drama of the moment.

Then one of the maintenance men walked out to bima and, without fanfare, knelt down at the side of the Ark and put the plug back in the wall. Everyone sighed; the eternal light came back on. The rabbi and cantor kept going, didn’t miss a beat.

My first thought was, oy, and all this time I thought the light was holy, who was I kidding? It’s just a bulb. Later on I understood that the truly sacred part of the day was when we gasped together, and then sighed--the unity and steadiness of our concentration as a community.

At services on Shabbat, the rabbi noted that Parashat Kedoshim is read this year in between Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the anniversary of the State of Israel. He quoted a commentator: On Yom Ha'Atzmaut, God judged us and found us worthy of reward. On Yom HaShoah, we judge God and find God lacking. I believe we're created in God's image in both spirit and soul, as it says in Kedoshim: "I am holy so you shall be holy." But I don't think that means we're always holy, or only like God. Maybe a better analogy than a mirror is to the plug that sometimes falls out of the wall, or a building that seems to change shape when filled with prayer. Perhaps the definition of holiness--the definition of God--allows for imperfection as well as the ability to judge and then be healed from this state, to change, find each other, join together, and regain strength.