Thursday, October 30, 2008

740. Still here

In case anyone is wondering: I truly have not disappeared. I'm still exhausted and trying to catch up with work after a month of three-day weeks, and also sneezing and coughing my head off with a miserable cold. (Not complaining, because it did have the decency to wait until after the holidays.) I'm also trying to write a d'var Torah, and have just started a writing class. More about that when I come up for air. Which will be soon!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

739. Once again

Last year at this time I created heaven and earth; now I'm about to destroy paradise. OK, I'm just the messenger--still, I can't help but note that Torah holds a mirror to the world. (Praying that this particular reflection omits the upcoming elections.) We're about to start the second year of the triennial cycle of readings, the middle of each parasha, so Bereshit will skip the fun parts and go right to the snake and apple (my reading next Shabbat). It's another really long section for me, over a column, and I'm also reading a column's worth this Shemini Atzeret. I seem to have passed some kind of learning speed bump; preparing this amount is nowhere nearly as arduous as it used to be. Since Bereshit doesn't list kosher birds or skin diseases, most of the words are familiar (except for some tongue-twisters like "I will greatly increase your anguish and your pregnancy,"El-ha'ishah amar harbah arbeh yitsbonech veheronech" [3:16]), and I can predict almost all the trop patterns. I still practice everything a million times, and don't trust my memory even when I know it backwards, but I continue to get a little bit calmer.

Before the universe springs into existence, however, we try to hold the gates open just an inch wider tomorrow morning at Hoshanah Rabbah. I look forward to beating those lulavim to a pulp and then downing some etrog schnapps as we survey the damage, an interesting tradition at my synagogue.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

738. Rosh Hashanah 5769, part 2

(Continued from here.)

On the second morning of Rosh Hashanah I was at the church, in imposing company--the rabbi with the beautiful voice, who pretty much saved my life (or at least my sanity) the year I had laryngitis, and the cantor, who was leading Musaf. Even though they are the two nicest, kindest, and gentlest people on the planet, their presence made me a little nervous. (I guess I haven't entirely gotten over myself.) This was the first time since the Annus Horribilis (to paraphrase Queen Elizabeth) that I helped lead in this particular combination. I could see the cantor, who sat in the congregation while I sang, every time I looked up from the mahzor. (He was at the Very Big Fancy Theater the day before, as well, but safely beyond my field of vision.) Not that I expected to see any expression of horror on his face, but it was relief when I did not. All went well, although I was very tired from the day before, and imagined I overcompensated by singing HaMelekh with too much drama, which left me less energy for everything else, causing some prayers to fizzle out like used balloons instead of soaring as they should. But I think this is all in my head. I struggled to give all of myself, but also found and grabbed on tightly to the wave of energy in the room, the magic floating laser beam of strength coming from those with whom I prayed, and sounded just fine.

I see now why I couldn't write the account of these Yamin Nora'im in chronological order, as I have over the past few years. I could think about the beginning, and the feeling of coming home, only after examining the end, and how I knew I was in the right place as I sang. The line from Handel's Messiah (and Malachi 3) comes to mind: "For he is like a refiner's fire." Maybe God burned out the dross, all the noise of preparation and nerves that got in the way, and left me with fewer obstacles in the way of understanding this experience. I don't yet, but perhaps the door is open.

I didn't do enough work before these holy days. I felt spiritually underprepared, my list of where I missed the mark long and uncategorized. I was overwhelmed, and didn't know where to begin to pray. But Yom Kippur emptied me just the same--I do now feel new and cleansed--although frayed edges remain, as always. I've forgiven myself for not being ready. I'll do better next year, or maybe just fail in different places. A little atoning goes a long way, I think, and at least I know my song reached somewhere new.

The buildup to the Yamim Nora'im is great, and the aftermath abrupt--the week always seems like a fleeting shadow, as in the Unetane Tokef. I wish I could better understand the journey as it happens, see through that shade, but what's really important happens on the other side. Now that I struggle so much less to let the music speak words I cannot, I'm slowly learning that singing is the same--a means and not the end, a path but not the destination.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

737. Rosh Hashanah 5769, part 1

Back to Rosh Hashanah: This year it felt like the seder where (somewhat to your surprise) all the relatives get along perfectly, no one drops a dish, and the room is full of love and great food. Whatever happened last year during Minha managed to stick--I could hit those high notes without a struggle, and breath and phrasing came easily. I'm sure the revelation was in my head and not my lungs: I finally got over myself, at least for now. The experience seemed not nearly as complex as I've made it to be these past four years.

I began to warm up at 6:30AM assuming, as is usually the case, that I would sound like a frog at such as early hour. But perhaps I really sang in my sleep, rather than just dreaming I did--after a half hour I was able to make sounds fit for public consumption. On the first morning I was at the Very Big, Fancy Theater, a three-mile walk. Last year it seemed like an endless trek; now I was able enjoy a leisurely stroll, and watch with sympathetic and gleeful detachment as the city woke up and stressed out. Once again I arrived way too early, but the place was already bustling; the musicians had a sound check at 8AM. So I sat in the Green Room for awhile, feeling useless but calm as everyone ran around, and then moved to the dressing room and watched on a stage monitor as the rabbi and cantor, with gymnastic flair, re-rolled a Torah scroll. (Which seemed Just Wrong, even to my highly gadgeted self; sifrei Torah should be witnessed in person.)

And then we walked onto the stage to begin Shaharit, and as the sound technician in the back turned dials and knobs I could hear a version of my voice change slowly until it matched loud and clear to what was in my head. I felt like I was exactly where I should be. My job this time around seemed to be about digging deeper into words and sounds I knew so well in order to transmit new discoveries as I found them. I have no idea if I did, but I knew my voice was full of conviction and questions.

(To be continued.)

736. Sukkot 5769

Hag Sameach! Every year I get a little closer to understanding Sukkot, truly feeling it in my bones. Maybe the holiday would be more meaningful if I lived where I could spend a week sleeping in the elements and raw air, or eating food from the new harvest... but today I looked up at the schach on the roof of my synagogue's sukkah (which is in the alleyway behind a church) and, instead of stars, saw the newly-washed clothing of guests at the homeless shelter hanging from a line. Although a city may not be the right setting for this holiday, that was a perfect symbol of a fragile, temporary home, and a reminder to be happy right where I am. And I was, singing Hallel, lingering over lunch with friends, enjoying the rare luxury of an away message on my email that I was closed for business. The breast-beating of Yom Kippur was particularly painful this year (one friend told me she put off praying for herself and instead plead for the entire country); Sukkot, in contrast, was a big joyful breath.

The rabbi offered a teaching at services yesterday morning: The numerical value of the letters in the word "lulav" is the same as in "chai" (life). So, suggests the Sfat Emet, the life for which we pray on Yom Kippur is now ours to shake up just like a lulav. I hope this coming year will shake me in a good way, not to loosen the foundation but a tilt just big enough to let me see from a different perspective.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

735. Right before Yom Kippur, 5769

Yom Kippur rehearsal

I emerged blinking in the bright sunlight from the dark Sanctuary last Sunday afternoon after my rehearsal and wandered smack into a street fair. ("Yom Kippur rehearsal?" wondered a friend. "Do you practice fasting, as well?" No, but judging by the amount of Chinese food I had for dinner that evening, one might think so.) High Holy Day week is also street fair season on the Upper West Side, always delightful and sometimes bordering on mystical. Once again I wove in and out of knots of people eating arepas and chimichangas; inspecting discount Chinese rugs and Indian handbags and African earrings; stopping to hear a Cuban mariachi band or try on a sweater; and I wanted to hug them all, a ridiculous wave of love for every single person, dog and roasted-corncob-dripping-with-butter-on-a-stick in my city. Maybe it was because I knew I wasn't the only sinner on Broadway, as we all joined in gluttony and coveting just as the Vidui advises we should not.

Or maybe it was because the rehearsal ran late, so I had no choice but wait for the cantor himself to rehearse Kol Nidre while I tried to look nonchalant. The rest of the Upper West Side was running around scrounging for bargains, thinking they were the lucky ones--but only I got to listen to the closest sound to the voice of God, over and over again. (I got to hear him on Rosh Hashanah, as well, which usually doesn't happen with all the hazzanim moving from service location to location--and he heard me, too, a bit nerve-wracking. Both mornings felt a little like a master class with the entire Jewish people observing from the the upper rows. But I seem to have passed, for now.)

A few days later I came back home from the Kol Nidre service still drowning in sounds of boundless strength embraced by compassion, and got right into bed because I had to be awake at 6:30 the next morning--but the year's worth of transgressions wouldn't stop bouncing around in my brain. The best way I could think to relax was with a little puzzle game on my iPhone, which I knew wasn't exactly kosher. It felt OK, though--more like meditation, repetitive, numbing and ultimately healing if it managed to keep me calm. Not that I have any idea what God wants, but I figured my good night's sleep was on His list, and so He wouldn't mind if I pushed all the little pieces together in rows while trying to refrain from conscious thought.

I'd been playing this game rather addictively for a few weeks. My highest score was 300,000 points, a number attained after lengthy rumination about strategy and tilting technique. But I decided to ignore all that, since I wanted to keep the day holy in spirit if not letter. My game would become one big digital "om": tilt, click, ping, tilt, click, ping as my brain emptied, readying itself for better things to come.

The little bomb exploded; the game was over. I looked at my score: 976,852, three times higher than my former greatest achievement. Cool. Maybe God really was OK with this particular sin and (were I a believer in that sort of communication) was trying to tell me that the year would start out just fine.


The rest of Rosh Hashanah to follow after Sukkot. (So soon? But I was just wallowing in endless guilt--now I get to be happy and celebrate the harvest? Amazing.) Wish everyone a sweet and bountiful holiday.

734. Yom Kippur afternoon 5769

This year my running account of the (amazing, intense, transformative) yamim nora'im will go backwards, because the last parts won't stop replaying in my mind's eye.


Yom Kippur afternoon

The day has changed abruptly from partly cloudy to sunny, warm as a July afternoon, and I try to stay in the the shade as I trek, exhausted, back up Broadway so I can lie down before Minha. My friend C., who didn't lead services and so has an ounce or two more energy, runs ahead. She keeps turning back to find me, like my cats in the morning as I'm en route to the kitchen--you can do it! You have to, we need you.

My apartment is cool and quiet, and I lay in bed for a few minutes thinking of how I will soon be just a few inches away from the Torot when I turn to the Ark and proclaim that Aaron carried them in battle. Imagining I'm singing to the scrolls always feels a little idolatrous; singing at them, rude. Maybe a better metaphor is with them, joining their silent words with my louder ones so the letters can jump into my notes. I force myself awake after a few minutes and rehearse the beginning phrases, splash some water on my face (technically not allowed, but I have to--maybe next year my flesh and sweat glands will be as strong as my spirit), and then C. and I walk a slow, blissfully downhill mile back to services.

I'm at the synagogue itself for the end of the Yom Kippur, the first time ever. I've always been at the church or various theaters at the critical tekiyah gadol moment, never less than glorious and with an abundance of friends and community. But the synagogue is smaller and crowded, and filled with more of my laughter and tears. I hear those echoes from the minute I walk in and try to sneak into the Secret Rabbi Room without bumping into people I know, but they see me anyway and give me big smiles. I'm home. On the other side of the door the rabbi sinks into the couch, as if gathering together his remaining bits of strength like the corners of a tallit in anticipation of a last burst to come. The musicians, who have scarcely stopped making music for a minute since sunrise, enter one by one with instruments, oud, guitar, cello, strapped to their backs and arms like outsized tefillin, radiant and looking like they haven't yet expended a calorie. I am exhausted but not depleted, and not at all hungry. (This is the easiest fast I've ever had, despite the logistical error of a salty turkey sandwich the evening before.) I feel empty as a tall glass drained in one gulp, having hours ago run out of words to beg and promise, but I think God understands my songs just the same. I am no less terrified of the answers than in past years, but it's OK--I'm standing in the right place to ask the questions. This is the first Yom Kippur that I've really believed it's no mistake I'm at the bima, and I hear that certainty in my voice. At every Amidah I pray to face the rest of life with the same kind of sound.

This bima is smaller than at the church or theater, and we stand shoulder to shoulder in front of the Ark as it opens. The curtain is stuck--we hold our breath--and then I hear the cue and begin to sing. It's like a slap in the face--wake up, the morning never really ended--time is short, but it's ours to use. Hear me, I plead, feeling the warmth of a thousand people in my family who fill every inch of the Sanctuary, each crevice of golden and dark red ornaments on the wall, and every space in my heart. I want to use myself up so there's nothing left at the end except the breath of those sounds. I am ecstatic and also terrified of what's to come, all I can't know. I keep feeling my heart race, but it slows down when I start to sing. Whatever God has in store will be fine as long as I can remember the echoes in this room.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

733. My cousin, part 2

(Continued from here.)

One hot August afternoon, I checked my answering machine.

“Hello?” said an unfamiliar, twangy voice. “This is the Family Research Bureau in Utah, regarding your cousin, Jerome. Please call back at your earliest convenience.” He left a phone number. Then a dial tone.

I stared at the phone. Shaking, I dialed. Jerry, it seemed, had died a year ago in San Francisco and the small amount of his veteran’s benefits, which had ended up at a company that specialized in tracking down relatives of lonely people who were outlived by their bank balances, had found their way to me.

I looked out the window at the crowds going to lunch and was sad, which startled me. Jerry had long ago faded to a wisp of a thought in my awareness, the tallit bag hidden and buried beneath winter sweaters. Most of my family, these days, existed only as images with bent corners in photo albums and there, or among the anonymous people walking down the street, I had always imagined Jerry would remain.


It was a month later, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. For most of my adult life I had been Jewish in name only, not caring much for a God that left me with hundreds of dollars a year in burial plot maintenance bills. But at the urging of a friend who thought it would be a good way to meet guys, I’d recently joined a synagogue, one rich in music, joy and community. At first I was wary; I had forgotten how to be part of something larger. Gradually I came to love it, and trust in its permanence, and watched my life grow less tentative and more intertwined with others as a result. As I walked to holiday services that morning, I thought of my first connections, my family and the stories from so long ago, and remembered the questions I still had about Jerry. What day did he die? I wondered. I had never asked.

But a few days later, before I could call Utah for the answer, I received an envelope of legal documents. Jerry had been homeless, I read. According to a court report, “He has not likely bathed in years. The social worker stated: ‘He is bright (although very irrational) and has social graces….’ We have not included details about the condition in which his body was found, as it is very graphic.” My tears stained the photocopies as I recognized the kind, lost boy from the back of my mind. He died in his room the previous September, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah—the same day, exactly one year later, that I would wonder when to say Yizkor for Jerry and remember his life in prayer along with the rest of our family.

It took me one more year, until the second day of the next Rosh Hashanah, to take Jerry’s tallit from the small velvet bag and wrap it around myself for the first time, and so join with my community in yet another way. It was an unfamiliar sensation, a nice one, and reminded me how he would gingerly hug me goodbye, the embrace of a feather blown about however the world decreed. The Jewish tradition is to be buried in one’s tallit but now, instead, I would rest his memory on my shoulders every time I wore it. And the others, my aunts and uncles, my mother and father, like the fringes bundled together and tied tightly at its corners, would never be far away.