Tuesday, September 30, 2008

732. My cousin, part 1

No, I'm not sitting here blogging on Rosh Hashana, but set two posts to appear automatically today and tomorrow. Tomorrow is the yahrzeit of my cousin Jerry, and here's a short essay I wrote about him a few years ago. It seemed a fitting day to share his memory, may it be a blessing, with the wider universe.



On Sundays we’d pile into the’67 Chevy and head to one of my uncles’ interchangeable apartments—musty furniture, plastic slipcovers, tassled lamps. I was the only niece, and all my aunts and uncles were much older. Everyone complained about sciatica and arthritis, and I had no one to talk to except my cousin Jerry, who was sweet but said little. When I was 9, he had just come back from a year of fighting in Vietnam. He’d sit on the other side of the room in a heavy chair and smile shyly; sometimes we’d play gin rummy. I imagined that his silence accompanied wise thoughts, as he absorbed without complaint all the shrill laughter and babka-filled kisses that swirled around us. There were always whispers, rumblings: Jerry was Not Right. “It’s the war,” said my mother. “Who the hell knows what went on over there?”

One Sunday we were late. My father paced in front of our apartment door as I was getting zipped and swathed into layers of clothing, as if Brooklyn were the North Pole. The phone rang. My mother ran over and picked up the receiver, and after a moment I saw her body seem to get smaller, her eyes wider.

“What do you mean?” she yelled into the receiver. “How could someone just disappear?” She leaned into the doorway, and I thought she might fall.

“Are we going or not?” my father demanded. “Jerry’s missing,” she answered, in almost a whisper.


My mother and Jerry’s father tried to find him, keeping a few private investigators gainfully employed. They determined he was in San Francisco; beyond that, no clue. Thirty years passed, and I paid the price of having old relatives: my aunts and uncles died, and then my parents. Jerry’s few belongings, including a small, blue velvet bag emblazoned with a frayed, gold Star of David, ended up in a corner of my bottom drawer. Inside were the accoutrements of male Jewish adulthood: a prayer book and a tallit, a prayer shawl, “Pure Silk” embroidered white on white. Except for the picture in my mind of soft eyes and dark hair where everyone else’s was gray, nothing else remained of my cousin.

(Continued here.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

731. Song

I walked in a few minutes late to Shabbat morning services this past week. I flipped through the siddur to find the page, and my eyes landed on these lines:

A Song for Shabbat
It is good to acclaim the Lord,
to sing Your praise, exalted God.

to proclaim Your love each morning,
to tell of Your faithfulness each night,

to the music of the lute and the melody of the harp.
--Psalm 92

and I realized I didn't need any other words. All I had to say was there: Thank you. Please hear me. Accept my music. Later on, during the Shema, I sat in silence and tried to imagine myself with eyes closed in the company of a few hundred people at any other public space in New York City. Only in a Sanctuary full of open hearts would I do such a daring thing, and trust that my song and sighs would keep me safe while I listened for whatever God wanted me to hear.

I pray this Rosh Hashanah that only good sounds come our way, and that each of us can add to the joyful noise. (A great place to start: this wonderful music of the Jews of Uganda; scroll to the bottom of the page to hear some samples from the album.)

Shanah Tovah!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

730. Arc

I got back a few hours ago from my second of two High Holy Day rehearsals.

It felt very different than before. The music is in my breath and bones; I always knew it well, but the little crevices are now filled. Singing Shaharit this afternoon was like a deep friendship where you finish the other person's sentences and roll your eyes at their flaws, but always stick around with love and laughter. I was almost there last year, but we were still too polite. Now, the fifth time around, I can relax and wait for the other--the congregation, musicians, the very sound in the room--to give an expected answer, rather than be surprised by the response.

My concentration also seems to have deepened, for better or worse, and a few times this afternoon I had little sense of where I was, or even why. (I walked out of the Sanctuary thinking I had to get ready for Shabbat, and then remembered it was Sunday. Maybe I'm just tired, or starting to lose my mind.) But at the same time I was also more in control, completely aware of the flow and energy required and able to modulate it as needed.

At least I think I can do these things--once it happens for real, all bets are off. I didn't expect this feeling of reaching a new, unexplored level, and can only imagine the twists and turns ahead. It reminds me of being on a swing, my favorite activity as a kid, when I would hold on with all my strength and go as high as possible, always in control yet never so. I'd tilt my head back at the very top of the arc and see the world upside-down--still the same old sky, but also new and different.

Today also tilted in a better direction since this morning's post: my friend and I made up; my other friend's aunt will be OK; I stopped procrastinating and sat down to write; no cold at the moment, knock wood; and I'm set for Tuesday dinner, thanks to a roving farmer's market that practically slapped me in the face at my doorstep. Worried about food? said God. Relax, I'll bring it here. I now have an amazing apple pie from a Southern-style bakery in Harlem, and perfect kosher pickles from the Lower East Side, so that my friends and I can welcome in a wonderfully sweet (and sour) new year.

729. Danger!

And now for something completely different, since a good night's sleep puts the holiday in a new, cheerier light. Before I begin the day's 47 million tasks, including two day's worth of work, a rehearsal, recording a student's Torah portion, learning one of my own, laundry, and shopping and cooking, I offer the following:

Caloric overload is not the only physical danger of this holiday. During services this past Shabbat, I thought of a few others:

8. Tallit-fringe strangling. With great humility, I must take credit for saving someone's life last week (or, at least, the integrity of the fabric of her blouse) after she kissed the end of the traveling Torah scroll with the edge of her tallit as it made its way around the Sanctuary--and her fringes got caught on the breastplate. The procession kept moving as my pew-mate scrambled to avoid being dragged down the aisle with the entire bar mitzvah family. I quickly reached over to achieve detanglement. "I guess I was trying to become attached to the Torah," she observed afterwards.

7. Accidental extinguishing of the ner tamid, the perpetual light. It happened a few years ago on Yom Kippur, and we seem to have escaped any immediate, dire repercussions--but in the bigger picture, who really knows.

6. Hagbah (the lifting of the Torah scroll during services) catastrophe. Traditionally, or maybe it's custom or heresay, I'm not sure, all present are supposed to fast for 40 days if a scroll is dropped. This is even worse if the dropping happens on Yom Kippur, when we're already very hungry. A few years ago, during the High Holy Days I Would Like to Blot Out Because I Had Laryngitis, the cantor--who also had laryngitis--was standing on the side with his baby daughter sound asleep on his shoulder just as the the Torah lifter began to sway precariously. The cantor literally leaped up to the bimah and caught both man and scroll in one balletic fell swoop, the baby never blinking an eye. An awe-inspiring moment that aged me about ten years.

5. Tripping on the bimah on the way up to an aliyah. Not funny. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah a few years ago, an elderly man fell and lost consciousness as he tried to climb the two small steps. (Now there are big strips of white tape outlining those steps.)

4. Death during prayer. Much worse than tripping, also not funny. This happened at a synagogue I attended ages ago, causing its moribund status to ascend to the next level.

3. "Please rise vertigo" from all that standing and sitting. Who needs the gym?

2. My synagogue has a balcony. The balcony has a railing. People in the first row of the balcony rest their prayer books on the railing. People in the first row also occasionally stretch, get up to put their coats on, etc. In tenth grade I think I learned the mathematical formula for determining the velocity of a falling object. By the time the book reaches the ground, or someone's head, it will probably have the force of a large locomotive. Please save the life of a ground-floor congregant this year and stash your mahzor on the seat. Thank you.

and finally:

1. Laryngitis. Let's not go there again. But it will forever remain, for me, as the deadliest of High Holy Day hazards.

Wishing everyone a panic-free day of holiday preparations.

728. Built in

Today at services the rabbi noted that Parashat Nitzavim, always read during the week before Rosh Hashanah, contains many instances of the word "teshuvah." This intrigued the ancient rabbis (of course), who interpreted it as proof that teshuvah came before absolutely everything:

"Before the world was created... God began to trace (the foundations of) the world but it would not stand. They told a parable: To what is the matter like? To a king who wishes to build a palace for himself. If he had not traced the earth its foundation, its exits and entrances, he does not begin to build. Likewise the Holy One was tracing (the plans of) the world but it did not remain standing until God created repentance."
--Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, Chapter 3

And because teshuvah is elemental to our existence,

"Teshuvah is always present in our heart."
--Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Kook

OK, so we know that change is possible--but that doesn't mean we know how to make it happen. We are overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, or trapped by circumstance. One solution, suggested the rabbi, is to remember that we are creative beings. Every small choice and new idea is an act of teshuvah--of changing our current situation into a new one. Instead of feeling crushed by expectations at this time of year, we can parse them into smaller pieces and keep in mind that we are not passive observers of our own lives--that the imperative to do, act, and change is built into us all.

These were very comforting words to hear this morning. Again, as every year, I feel woefully unprepared to face the truth of how I missed the mark. I fear I will pretend to look God in the eye while sweeping everything under the psychic rug, so to speak. I am annoyed: with a friend who let me down, with myself for hiding and procrastinating. I am afraid: for the world, for a friend's aunt who just had a stroke, for the 1% chance that I'll catch a cold between now and Tuesday. I am in good company: with everyone else facing the fact this Rosh Hashanah that they're human, and change is really hard.

I agree that we live by small steps, and they all count. I like the idea that our very nature is to move forward. I pray that the energy of a few hundred people in a room thinking and singing about how to do this will give us all the strength to take two steps when we thought only one was possible.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

727. Hidden

This week's parasha, Ki Tavo, begins as follows:

Vehayah ki-tavo el-ha'arets asher Adonay Eloheycha noten lecha nachalah...
When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you as a heritage...

"Vehayah"--when--a straightforward word. But Hassidic commentators, noted the rabbi last night at services, gave it great emphasis as a "key to the future." Why? The rabbi didn't understand the interpretation until she noticed that "vehayah" is spelled vav, hey, yod, hey. A little rearranging and you get the name of God--yod, hey, vav, hey--hidden where we least expect it, a reminder that in this month of Elul our task is to search for God in places we have forgotten or overlooked. God is always present, but sometimes we need to reorder the letters that make up our own souls in order to figure this out.

As she spoke, I thought of the two yahrzeits that always take me by surprise on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In 1999 I learned of the death of a cousin the year before. He had fought in Vietnam, come back a different person, and disappeared when I was 9 years old; my family hired a private investigator, who found him in San Francisco. But my cousin refused all contact, even after the deaths of his mother and, a few years later, his father, my mother's brother. By the time I grew up, all that remained of his memory was a tallit bag in the bottom of a drawer. (There's much more to this story, which I wrote a few years ago and published in a small anthology. Perhaps I'll post it here in a week and a half). Three years ago, I came home from services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah to a message on my answering machine that my cousin Bunny had died, a tiny, gutsy force of perpetual energy who trained dogs and loved animals with a fierce passion (and adopted my 18-year-old cat Irving when I was shell-shocked after the death of my mother, and introduced him to macho, calico Figaro, who convinced Irving to come out of the closet both literally and figuratively so the two could spend their golden years together in feline-cohabiting bliss). Although these two people were not part of my daily life, their deaths left big holes in the fabric of a family whose few remaining fringes I hold tight.

As the rabbi spoke, I also remembered the yahrzeits of my mother: Adar 14, Purim (in years that aren't leap years); and father, Thanksgiving (in 1990, but the association always remains). I used to be angry that so many holidays bore the shadow of death for me. Why couldn't my cousins and parents have left this earth on boring, normal days? But then I thought about those particular holidays--happy, festive, full of the promise of new beginnings and connections to community as we come together and sing Sheheheyanu, laugh at ourselves, wear new (or funny) clothing, plan for the future. As in "vehayah," God was hidden in those days to make sure I would think of people I loved when I laughed, and never be alone when I cried.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

726. Very soon

I can scarcely believe that Selihot is in two days. Every year I've had fewer and fewer rehearsals leading up to the High Holy Days, and so the discipline of preparation has been shifting back to my own responsibility. Back when I started this journey in 2004--or, rather, when I was pushed happily but uncomprehendingly onto the road--I spent many months thinking, dreaming, and breathing Shaharit. (Ne'ila and Minha followed soon after.) I had no choice but to get ready with all my body and spirit. Now the melodies are in my bones; all I've had to do for the past month is review, every couple of days, the parts where my voice balks at what it's supposed do. The range is still a little high, even though I'm now more accustomed to singing those notes. I've learned not to worry, because I know I'll be just fine after waking up at 6AM and warming up for two hours. (I'll be singing at the same number of services as last year, despite my unfounded doubts.) I have a rehearsal with one ensemble next Friday, and another the following Monday. And that's it.

But I don't think I've done enough of the other kind of preparation--the heshbon hanefesh part, accounting of my soul for the past year. I've taken stabs at it, made a few changes, fell backwards. It's slow going, as always. I'm remembering to be kind to myself, and hoping this compassion and patience will spill over into my dealings with the rest of the world. This week I revisited Beginning Anew, a collection of essays about the Yamim Nora'im from a feminist perspective. A friend lent it to me four years ago and I've been consumed with guilt every subsequent Yom Kippur, when I remember that I never read or returned it. This year will be different. Ever since I took part in a discussion group about Engendering Judaism, a book exploring the challenges of a gender-expansive view of Jewish prayer, the idea of a women's approach to Judaism has felt much less awkward. (And I've felt less awkward admitting that it once seemed so.) My religious community comes very close to being completely gender-neutral in all aspects of philosophy and ritual which, paradoxically, is not always the best approach. The rest of the world is not always so tolerant, and sometimes we need to celebrate the differences that were once mistaken for inequality. Just because they no longer are doesn't mean we should ignore them.

These are concepts I wouldn't usually explore; I hope struggling with them in this week before I stand on the bima will teach me something new about myself.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

725. Existential GPS

As I've said too often, I love my iPhone. But it's not perfect: some apps crash, the calendar isn't as good as on my trusty old Treo, and it hasn't yet learned how to copy and paste. That's OK; I'm patient. It's young, brilliant, and lovely, not yet seasoned but full of potential. I can wait.

It is, however, a bit confused. At certain times of day, from a few different locations in my apartment, it thinks I'm in Texas. Not just anywhere in Texas, but a very specific spot on Town-to-Market Road outside of Houston. It's offered up the name of the closest pharmacy to Town-to-Market Road, and told me there are no restaurants in a 5-mile radius. According to the satellite photo on the GPS Google Map, there's nothing much in that spot except a road, a field, and what look like storage buildings.

I wonder: is someone on Town-To-Market Road outside of Houston at this very moment checking a new iPhone after a long day of work hauling farm equipment, and wondering why it thinks she should go see a movie at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas or check out a hot new restaurant featuring photos of clowns on the wall?

Are we ever really where we think we are?


I am not the only one pondering the philosophical implications of the iPhone. Here's Rabbi Marc Wolf of JTS on Parashat Ekev:

Since I am a self-professed “techno-junkie,” it took considerable restraint to wait the year for the second-generation iPhone to be released. ...


On another matter: Matt Damon speaks for me. Bravo.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

724. Belatedly

I meant to write on 9/11, as I have for the past few years. I'm learning that the death of buildings and memories is not really much different than the death of a loved one. Time seems to dull pain, and then it all comes back with the sound of a breath, a certain glint of sunlight.

I planned to go to morning minyan and say the Mourner's Kaddish. Instead I chose to lay in bed and think about good and bad parts of that day--there really was goodness amidst unimaginable agony, as I grew closer to friends and community and watched everyone try to help each other even as we thought the world was ending. I also remembered how my mother insisted we visit the Towers in person as soon as they were built; same for the Citicorp (now Citigroup ) Center. She wasn't otherwise an architecture buff, but delighted in these new and unusual additions to the skyline--her skyline. There was an urgency about seeing them, as if we had to claim them as soon as possible in order to retain our ownership of the city. Did we ever get to the oddly Chippendale-corniced AT&T (now Sony) Building? It opened during a year about which I recall very little, when my mother was in and out of the hospital and I was in a constant haze. I remember we spoke about it, and have an image of myself in the building lobby, very sad. I don't think we got there together.

But the Towers in my mind's eye still make me smile, as I see my mother standing in wonder on the roof deck.

I appreciated this quasi-Biblical account of the last seven years, a little forced but also profound:

In the Seventh Year

In Judaism, seven is a number of rest--for the earth and living beings each Shabbat, for crops in seven-year cycles, the number before covenant (brit milah, circumcision, on the eighth day of life). I pray that this year we can continue to heal, and begin a new cycle of promises of love rather than hatred. And that this anniversary can fall into a rhythm and melody that manages to comfort even while searing an eternal memory:

9/11 Chant

(HT to Kol Ra'ash Gadol for reminding me of this rewriting of Eikha [Lamentations] by Rabbi Irwin Kula.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

723. A cliff, part 2

(Continued from here.)

I ditched work for the afternoon (way too easy to do when you're self-employed), sang it over and over and over again for the rest of the day, and then again at dawn the next morning. I sang it too many times. I knew I knew it, but didn't believe myself. I worked myself into a state of near-panic and barely made it to services because of, shall we say, physical issues. I was at once confident, angry at my irrationality, and sure that catastrophe would strike once I reached the bima. And equally sure I'd do a perfect job. Stage fright is no fun. I was so confused that I didn't know what I was thinking.

I did well. And when I sang, to my surprise, I understood once again that the breath within me was shared. My nerves fell away and I felt stronger than ever, certain that if I missed the mark, if I needed to be propped up or slapped into sensibility while chanting, or at any other time in life, I would always find an open door leading me back home. About to lose my balance at the edge of a cliff, I was in the world's safest place. I wanted to run away, yet never leave.

I don't understand why the act of memorizing a few pages of Hebrew can tie me into such metaphysical knots. For days afterwards I was completely spent, exhausted on all levels. Last Shabbat I chanted part of Parashat Shoftim, harder to learn than Va'ethanan, and barely broke a sweat. Maybe I needed to drive myself to the edges of intestinal fortitude in order to understand how much more pleasant it is to remain calm--or maybe, sometimes, I need to be a little nuts in order to understand what and why I am singing. Either way, I will keep hiking up that cliff.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

722. A cliff, part 1

How do I work this thing?... Oh, right, just type. So here I am again, trying to steer myself to the proper course as we approach the end of Elul. I've missed writing, but have had little space for it in my brain. I've also been indulging my outer life more than my inner: finally snagged an iPhone and am playing with it constantly, bought a new couch, got rid of of the old one (a very New York story, post to come). Along with introspection, silly stuff is also necessary to maintain balance in life. But I am definitely still here.

At services two weeks ago, the rabbi reminded us that the letters in the name of this month, Elul, are also the first letters of "Ani dodi v'dodi li:" "I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine." He suggested we remember that we are our own beloveds--that in heshbon hanefesh, the inventory of our year, we pay attention to what we love in ourselves, and how we can nurture and grow these traits. And take note of the parts we don't love, so we can leave them behind.

Last month I confronted both poles, which I must admit is another reason (aside from crushing loads of deadline-oriented work) that I haven't written. I haven't wanted to put in the time to digest, articulate, and understand. I had signed up for a whopping bit of chanting, a column and a third. Most of this I read three years ago, so wasn't worried. I was kind of excited about doing it again, in fact, this time calmly and with more confidence.

On Friday afternoon I got an email from the cantor: Would you like to read the haftarah, as well? It was a cool one: "Nahamu, nahamu," the first haftarah of consolation before the High Holy Days. I was about to say yes, but was drowned out by a little voice from the logical side of my brain: it's a bit too much to cram. (The musical part comes quickly, but I still stumble over Hebrew.) I thanked him, and said I didn't think I'd have enough time. OK, he replied, I guess I'll keep trying to ask around. I could almost hear the big sigh between the lines of his email: Someone backed out at the last minute and I can't find anyone else. You've never learned anything this fast before, but I know you can do it. Pretty please.

I knew that chanting this particular haftarah would help heal me from the searing images of Tisha be-Av. I wanted to do it. I read it through a few times, decided to trust in the cantor's trust, which never let me down before, and said yes.

(Continued here.)