Sunday, July 27, 2008

713. Google interlude

Every once awhile I check my infinitely fascinating Sitemeter stats to see who found this blog via Google. Last week someone from a Hard Rock Hotel domain arrived via "chazzerai," aka various forms of pig-like schmutz. (Yes, I'm proud to say that I came up fourth on that honorable list, although have since been bumped to page 2.)

Why would someone at the Hard Rock Google "chazzerai"? Maybe a guest at the hotel heard the word during a show and wondered what it meant? I don't generally think of Yiddish phrases as part of the entertainment at this type of venue, but you never know--perhaps one of the hip musicians was a follower of Kabbalah trying to reclaim his or her cultural heritage. Or maybe the older manager of a rock star, or a patron at a restaurant, voiced a complaint, and the recipient consulted Google for a translation.

Or some bored teenager sitting in a hotel lobby was passing the time with a laptop, just as I did with all the books in the gift shop when when my parents slept late during Passover week at Brown's Hotel.

In any case, I hope this post cleared up any confusion.

712. Summer

Summer at my synagogue is usually quiet, as most of Manhattan heads off to less humid locations. But services have been packed this year, perhaps because of the insane cost of gasoline, and I miss the relative emptiness of the Sanctuary on Friday nights. I want the end of my week to feel differently during the summer, a slowing-down more like the sea and lying on a blanket on a patch of sunny grass, a rest that forgets the week as deeply as possible.

This, for me, is harder to achieve when the room is filled. The hazzan and rabbi know this, as well, and the tefillah these past few weeks has been quieter, tempi more relaxed, creating a longer trajectory to the moment when prayer, as if gliding down a runway, finally rises. The music this Friday evening began like a deep sigh, and soon I think all our breaths and heartbeats were synchronized. I closed my eyes and imagined a cloud of all our combined souls hovering above, blanketing us and damping the noise of the week that had passed. I felt the very molecules in my cells slowing down, untwisting, like ice changing into warm water.

I looked around and wondered if everyone else agreed, but we were all hidden behind our faces; I could only guess. But as people danced and I watched them smile and laugh—a moment that defines Shabbat evening for me, actual proof before my eyes that life is more joyous if you learn to leave the harder parts behind for a day—I knew we had all been transformed from our weekday selves. My dear niece came to services this week, and her presence next to me made the embrace of the music feel even stronger. During the Amidah, I prayed for time to slow down so that the service might last longer; walking down the street afterwards, I imagined all the annoying details of my week flying away like bunches of balloons, until they drifted beyond sight.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

711. Sugar

The other week I attended a shiva minyan for an amazing woman, the mother of a congregant whom I've known for years. (The more of these I attend, the more lives I get to glimpse, the more I understand that each and every one of us is amazing.) We heard about her goodness and stubbornness; her humor, generosity, pragmatism, and spontaneity; and how she never uttered a mean word. And we saw her in the gentle smile and tears of her son. Just when it seemed that the evening's stories had all been told, he remembered something that happened the day before. The doorman, who's not Jewish and for whom English is a second language, was understandably concerned about all the recent traffic in and out of the apartment. The family explained what happened, and that the volume of visitors was a great thing. The doorman thereafter gladly directed all crowds upstairs where, he explained, the family was "sipping sugar."

Perfect pronunciation, in my opinion. What better metaphor for sharing memories of sweetness and love?

Monday, July 21, 2008

710. The Jews of Uganda

This is fascinating:
Can efforts to save a culture destroy it?

It's an article reprinted from the Duluth News Tribune about the Abayudaya, a community of Jews in Uganda:

Once totally unknown to the larger Jewish world, the Abayudaya are the result of a proselytizing effort gone awry a century ago. Given a Christian Bible, their founder, Semei Kakungulu, invariably described as a chief and a king, elected to embrace the Old Testament and throw off the New. When missionaries objected, telling him he’d then be a Jew, he found his calling. He spread his new religion to his subjects and though still isolated, acquired Hebrew liturgy and texts but without the associated European music. Substituting their Lugandan harmonies, their spirituality blossomed, and devoutly and quietly, endured until the regime of Idi Amin.

Like Muslims, Uganda’s Jews suffered the dictator’s wrath, and many shed the religion in fear. When Amin was toppled in 1979, only about 300 of 3,000 Abayudaya still practiced.

The article goes on to tell of a visit to Uganda by a group of Conservative rabbis in celebration of the recent ordination of the very first Abayudayan rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, from the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. The visitors, and many other Americans who rallied behind the Abayudaya, are pictured as well-meaning but somewhat insensitive colonizers, trying their best but not really understanding the nuances of the prevailing culture. The Abayudaya are grateful for the support, but not without mixed feelings:

“It used to be a shame to say you were Abayudaya,” [says Samson Wamani, the community’s medical director]. “Now, you are proud.”

But their spirituality has been diminished. “Before the outsiders came, our Judaism was very strict. We became diluted.” The Westerners, he says, “didn’t teach us by example.”

And the author of the article describes attending a service that begins "with full participation" set to African melodies, but ends tepidly to the sound of Western tunes sung by a tone-deaf American rabbi.

I was reminded of my trip in 2002 to visit the Cuban Jewish community—not quite the same problems, as few local traditions remained from the days before religious observance was banned from the island. (Communities practiced in secret until 1993, when post-Soviet-era Cuba was starving and Castro correctly figured that international religious communities could offer much-needed economic support.) Although we were welcomed like family, I still couldn't shake the sense that they saw us as rich cousins gawking at quaint native customs. (Then again, I could have been paranoid because I'm pretty sure the Cuban police were surreptitiously gawking at and following us.) I knew we were much more sensitive to the issue than other groups who had visited in the past. At an Orthodox synagogue recently renovated by an international organization, the old, low curtain mechitza had been replaced by a 5-food tall translucent plastic affair that impeded both sight and sound. During a conversation at breakfast after a (for me, mostly unheard) Shaharit service, a few of the Cuban women admitted that they hated the thing. But they were grateful for other help from the organization, so would live with it.

I wonder how I'd feel if my own synagogue for some horrible reason lost the right to pray with our own music, traditions and interpretation of what heartfelt prayer should sound like. Like the Abayudaya, music is the cornerstone of our style of worship—but we have the resources to keep and shape it as we please. I hope the Jews of Uganda are able to find a balance, and become integrated into the larger Jewish community while also maintaining the unique art of their own liturgy.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

709. In person

I was struck last week by this post by Steven Hodson on Mashable:

... I know I am not alone in this but sometimes I get the feeling that as a human race we are slowly losing the ability or desire to appreciate the things in life that we are so eager to try and replace with technology ... As much as technology in some ways is trying to make our lives better, we should also not be willing to so easily give up on the real human act of interaction ... I don’t believe that any video conferencing can come close to sitting at a bistro cafe on a sunny Sunday morning sharing brunch while talking about both the mundane and the important. Friendships made over digital connections can be important, but they don’t even come close to those forged through holding a friend during their times of trouble or when they sit with you sharing nothing more than the setting of the sun.

I agree thoroughly, but what I found most interesting was the tone of this post—the sense that we're just starting to acknowledge this problem. But it's not new at all; those of us who live in cities, who rarely exchange a hello with our next-door neighbor and ride the subway in the company of nameless others, have been grappling with the dilemma in a different form for many years. I think that hiding behind a text message to avoid interacting personally and emotionally is just another variation of choosing to be anonymous in a crowd. I wish I could spend a day in the brain of someone in her teens, who doesn't know life without instantaneous electronic communication—I'm sure she has a very different concept than I of what it means to really know someone, and how that process happens. I have friendships that grew in both realms, but still a sense that meeting in person is the real deal. But to someone who doesn't share that default understanding, I must seem like a Luddite—and the idea presented above, radical.

I remember when I first got involved in my synagogue, and that feeling of coming home—of gathering with a crowd each week, seeing familiar faces, sharing intimacy simply by being present. It woke me up; it was new, but also comfortable in the same way as hanging out with friends or family, having no agenda aside from enjoying each other's company. Although my life was not bereft of those experiences, they were diminishing in favor of online communication. But not until I began to re-experience the other kind of interaction on a regular basis did I understand, deep down in my bones, how much I missed and needed it. It was a feeling beyond my conscious control, surely hard-wired and in my DNA. Maybe this is why we invented religious ritual way back when, to insure that we had a reason to gather in person on a regular basis. Maybe religion had nothing to do with God—or maybe that feeling is God, and why we're compelled to sit close, shake hands, breathe the same air.

708. Rescue

Enough about gadgets. After a week or two without any Torah readings looming, I am now overwhelmed—in a good way, of course. I was a convincing voice of the donkey, although got a little lost in the previous aliyah when lines I had expected to see at the bottom of a column showed up instead at the top of the next one. I tried, as always, to psych myself out in anticipation of this scenario, and learned from two different tikkunim with different patterns of line breaks. I figured one of the two would match the scroll, but when it didn't—when a word I expected to find down below suddenly jumped to line one, and I realized that I associated its melody with a state of being on the bottom—I got lost. Both the rabbi to my left and hazzan over in the corner started to sing, but all I heard was pretty cacophony; they were using different versions of the trop. But I was comforted, as always, by their immediate rescue, that sense of being always safe, always accompanied during this nervous journey of words. It gave me confidence to fake my way through the line until I recognized a friendly old word with a distinctive trop, to which I rushed like a drowning person to a life raft. Thereafter I remained on track.

After a few hours of feeling bad, I realized it wasn't a big deal. (The hazzan said so, too, after I apologized.) Still, I'll be happier once I find, on the advice of my old teacher, another tikkun with line breaks different from the two I own, as well as from the various tikkun websites. Meanwhile, I'm almost done learning a section for next week, lots of numbers, what fun. I'll also be very busy on Tisha Be-Av: the chapter of Eikha I've chanted for the last two years, and haftarah the following afternoon, as on every Tisha Be-Av since I first learned it in 2003. And that same morning, the long Torah reading I apparently did three years ago (here's proof!), although little of it remains in my brain. I'll also chant it the following Shabbat, when those three aliyot plus some more lines make up one whopping aliyah. I'm hoping a dormant memory will be shaken awake as I start to practice over the next week or so.

707. Grumpy

I'm a gadget freak, staunch supporter of Apple, and rely on a PDA for work. OK, I also like to look cool. But I'm also proud of my individuality, and try to avoid doing something that a million other people are doing at the same time.

So I waited a whole week before giving in to my desire for an iPhone. I also felt a little guilty because I love my Treo, which completely changed my work life. No more rushing back to my desk to answer email, or even plunking down a dollar for the latest newspaper. I also relished leaving it behind on Shabbat, and feeling completely cut off from the world.

But in every life there's a time for change, and this morning was to be my iPhone moment. I checked the website; red squares almost everywhere except my favorite store, 5th and 59th. I ambled over at 7:30AM, certain that few other crazy New Yorkers would sacrifice their Sunday mornings for a phone. I was wrong. They were already sold out, which made sense once I learned from a creepily perky Genius in an official 3G T-shirt that shipments arrive Monday through Friday, so of course none would be left by the end of the weekend.

Still, despite oppressive, humid heat, I had a nice morning walk alongside the southern edge of Central Park. I love New York even though all my favorite diners have closed and the nearest place for scrambled eggs was 15 blocks away, and once there I bumped into crowds just emerging, blinking in the sunlight, from the 6AM showing of THE DARK KNIGHT. I guess they're no crazier than I. I love New York despite loud, unfashionably-clad tourists on the subway at the crack of dawn, all wide-eyed and trying to re-fold their big, glossy maps. I really have no beef with you--you can wear whatever you want, I apologize for my rudeness--and am grateful for your boost to the city's economy. But attempting to keep your balance in a moving train without holding on to a pole is neither clever nor cute, although you think it is, and you will probably end up falling on my head. I value my head. Nor is staring at fellow riders, having conversations at a volume that can be heard back in your native country, or standing in the middle of the platform and blocking my egress so you can take a photo of your kids smiling in front of dirty tracks. I'm not a curmudgeon, but I want New York City all to myself at 7:30 AM--especially if I've just learned I can't scratch my itch and won't get an iPhone until tomorrow at the crack of dawn. Maybe.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

706. Rest

At services on Friday we learned that the mystical tradition links this new month of Tammuz to vision, the sense of sight. So last week's parasha, Balak, couldn't be more appropriate. The donkey sees those angels with perfect clarity, but Balaam the sorcerer is blind, or perhaps asleep--the Biblical version of putting your fingers in your ears and singing "La, la, la, I can't hear you!" Balaam would rather sit in darkness than confront the possibility of God's presence. The donkey, on the other hand, has a open mind, and is truly awake.

This is also the goal of Shabbat, said the rabbi--to wake up and see, and savor, the world we've been trying to create for the past week. I have to say that her words struck me as ironic--I wait all week for Shabbat so I can spend the afternoon dozing on my sofa and feeling like some sort of lazy princess. I am definitely not awake. Or maybe this habit is God's way of getting me to understand that the secrets of life are best discovered in rest, and the running around and working part is really just a ruse to avoid hearing my own thoughts. I can see my dreams most clearly when I stop--when I sleep--and make room for the truth.

Friday, July 11, 2008

705. Nu?

This link has been posted on a number of blogs and I will join the bandwagon, because it's really cool. HUC (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement seminary) is conducting a survey:

Concerning the spread of Yiddish among English speakers in North America

You are invited to participate in an interesting and entertaining survey about language. Essentially, we're asking about the spread of Yiddish (and some Hebrew) among English speakers in North America. We're turning to both Jews and non-Jews to answer questions like these: Who uses Yiddish words like "shmooze" and "daven" and phrases like "Money, shmoney"? Why do some people say "temple" while others say "shul"? Who prefers biblical names for their babies? Your responses will help us answer these and other questions, and you might learn something about yourself in the process. Please set aside 15-20 minutes, and click on this link to participate.

Please forward this e-mail to your friends and family. We are hoping to get thousands of responses from people of all religions, ages, and regions of the United States and Canada. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail Prof. Sarah Bunin Benor,, or Prof. Steven M. Cohen,

It's a fun 15 minutes... nu, why not?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

704. Rest in peace, Clay S. Felker

The cover story in this week's New York is about the magazine's recently deceased founding editor, Clay S. Felker. New York magazine, oddly, was one of the longer-lasting and more stable presences in my childhood. We were a middle-class Queens family with no nightlife whatsoever; a typical Saturday evening consisted of sitting in front of the TV from the beginning of "All in the Family " straight through to "The Carol Burnett Show," capped off daringly by a dish of chocolate ice cream. Wild times involved window shopping at Alexander's on Main St. New York's world of "radical chic," and the best place to buy sushi or get a $600 haircut, or even a cheap, chic haircut, held only anthropological relevance to my mother and I—but the world in its pages was still our New York, even if we were mostly observers. The New Yorker, we silently agreed, was wordy and snooty; might as well just read a book. New York, on the other hand, although annoying and a little trashy in a high-class, aspirational sort of way, felt like the city I met on the subway. I snickered at the ludicrous self-involvement of everyone mentioned in its pages while also feeling simultaneously of, below, and above them, an odd mixture that kept me hooked.

We never actually bought the magazine. It came to us second-hand from my Uncle Ben and Aunt Estelle, my mother's brother and his wife, who used to hang out at Latin-inflected nightclubs and were now retired to a Forest Hills apartment filled with naked Delft cherubs and plastic-slipcovered, gold brocade sofas. But they were once the real thing. Ben, reserved and gravel-voiced, very unlike my other loud, garrulous uncles, made a lot of money as a whiskey importer (and, rumor had it, bootlegger), and personally knew the mayor of Dublin. On weekends my mother worked as his secretary and typed letters about labels and cartons, sandwiched between many sheets of carbon paper, on an old Underwood. Estelle had more wrinkles than any other person on Earth, wore too much lipstick, and regarded children as aliens from outer space—but I grudgingly decided I loved her when she had a piano shipped to me as a 6th birthday present. My mother was much like her eldest brother, quiet but harboring a daring side that mostly remained hidden, but not always. Maybe she read New York to be more like Ben.

The magazines accumulated on a aluminum tray table next to the refrigerator, to be read while eating dinner at the kitchen table. They held little interest for me until one day, at the age of 15, I noticed this headline staring up from the top of the pile:

The "Me" Decade and the Third Great Awakening
by Tom Wolfe

Perhaps it was the bold (for its time) typography—in my first year at the High School of Music and Art, I was newly intoxicated by calligraphy and letterforms—or the funny photo of all those narcissists in T-shirts, or simply a concept I understood immediately, but had never labeled—but I remember the moment I saw that cover and a little spark lit in my brain, as if that instant nudged me closer to becoming a legitimate urban adult. I soon followed up with Andy Warhol, Philip K. Dick, and many others I didn't understand but had to explore just the same. I was still an un-cool teenager from Queens, but New York magazine opened a door. After Ben and Estelle died, my mother got her own subscription; after my mother died, I transferred it to my name, and remain a faithful reader. I still can't afford to eat at Per Se but, thanks to New York, feel like the voyeuristic but beloved cousin of those who do. Rest in peace, Clay S. Felker.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

703. Funny

Remind me not to do that again. Only the display was damaged, not the CPU, which saved me a little money--but not much. I'll have the laptop back in about a week. Meanwhile, I'll make do with [*shudder*] writing on my work computer, and reading the actual paper paper. I've become frighteningly used to having a source of all knowledge with me wherever I go. Yes, I am obsessively attached to the hunk of silver that came to me late in its life, gently used, but still "nimble and quick." A week apart will probably do us both some good.

Meanwhile, this coming Shabbat I get to chant the funny part:

27 When the ass now saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.

28 Then the Lord opened the ass's mouth, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?" 29 Balaam said to the ass, "You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I'd kill you." 30 The ass said to Balaam, "Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?" And he answered, "No."

--Numbers 22

I've heard people chant this in all manner of silly voices. I won't--I'm afraid of making a fool of myself even under the most restrained of conditions--and I also always keep in mind the wonderful short story readings at Symphony Space, where the truest, most honest character renditions are in the voice of the actor, more or less (B.D. Wong, in particular; this isn't the story I heard him read, but he's so brilliant that I'd listen to him recite the phone book). I like the parasha's confident, cheeky, annoyed donkey, and the sheepish reply by Balaam. (In the triennial reading, his last word, "No," is unfortunately also the end of the aliya--so everyone will be singing along, and the drama of its brevity will be lost.) Balaam, fighting to curse but only able to bless, would have little energy left while waging his struggle. He says many other words later on, but I imagine them all in a whisper. I think the rebuke in verse 29 would be his one remaining loud, strong utterance.

I'm going to try to keep this in mind while chanting, but nerves may dampen the interpretation. Hopefully I'll be having enough fun to let myself be a (kosher) ham, for a change.

Monday, July 07, 2008

702. Lame

I must admit that I've been feeling creatively dry lately. Lots of ideas, no inclination to sit down and write. As a rebuke, perhaps, mysterious forces of nature made me knock my laptop off a table this morning. It seems to be working, but nothing shows up on the screen except a spirit-like white miasma. Hopefully the nice folks at the Apple store can bring it back to life. oy.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago I decided to hang a piece of fabric on my bedroom wall. I removed the mirror that was hanging there and propped it up on the floor against a bookcase. Immediately my cat sat himself down right in front of it, and spent the next 15 minutes staring contentedly at his handsome face. (He has no problems with self-esteem.) I thought of this at Friday night services when the rabbi, speaking about Parashat Shelah Lekha, noted how the spies were sure they were seen by the giant inhabitants of the Negev as small and weak: "...and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we must have looked to them." (Deuteronomy 13:33) Therein lies the problem: if you assume you're powerless, then you can't even imagine the possibility of change. My cat happens to lead a perfect life, but if he didn't--with such confidence in his own image, he surely would accomplish wonders. (As it is, he wages a constant and successful campaign for food.)

This week the rabbi spoke of the link between Miriam and water, and how her death signaled both a literal and spiritual drought in the community. (Deuteronomy 20:1: "Miriam died there and was buried there. 2: The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.") We are, perhaps, in this same kind of dry time as a country. Until we find a new water-bearer--soon, I hope--we have to remember more than ever that we're not grasshoppers. Maybe not giants, either, but a people capable of honest, ethical, creative growth, and of helping others grow, as well.

(Meanwhile, I have to learn that my laptop isn't all that powerful. I hope it's still alive.)