Thursday, August 28, 2008

721. Proud

It's been awhile, I know. I'm still here!--still chanting, being overwhelmed, collecting experiences, wondering, muddling enjoyably through. And drowning in work. I feel like I've been in a cave for the past few weeks, emerging thirstily on Shabbat but otherwise gasping for air. Not that I don't like my job, but it's been a bit much. My brain is full. I will return to some semblance of normalcy in the very near future, if only because the words on my fingertips are about to explode; I need to write them down soon, or else.

Meanwhile, I had to come here to mark this night, and note that I'm proud of my country for the first time in at least eight years. I don't know if he's right about everything--he's still a politician, after all--but Barack Obama is our best hope for a future. As he spoke about watching the astronauts with his grandfather when they returned from space, I remembered staring at a grainy, black-and-white TV with my mother as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. She made sure I understood the importance of witnessing a moment when the world changed. She would have so enjoyed tonight's speech.

More to come very soon.

Friday, August 15, 2008

720. Another weird dream

Here's another addition to the not very scintillating Internet archive of the chanting-related wanderings of my subconscious. Last night I dreamt I could view my life in the form of a big calendar stretched across the floor, with boxes extending miles and miles into the distance. As I walked above the days, I noticed that important tasks were represented by faces of people I knew and, in some cases, really cute baby animals. (Yes, I've been visiting a little too frequently. I also spent an hour last night wrestling with iCal.) My Torah reading last week was represented by a little bowl of goldfish. My upcoming reading tomorrow was an adorable, fluffy mouse.

I crouched down to pet the mouse. But--he was dead! oy. And as soon as I tried to pick him up, he turned into someone else's face. (I am not going to say whose. Some things are too personal even for a blog.)

I do not appreciate dreams that are reminiscent of films by Buñuel, especially since I thought I was over my anxiety about chanting Torah. I really do not consciously feel nervous about my reading tomorrow--I did most of it twice last week, and could probably sing it in my sleep if necessary. I am starting to wonder about the holidays, though, since I haven't yet heard anything about my role. I suspect it will be less this year than in the past, because we have a new intern. Life goes on--others need to have their chance.

Then again, I have no idea, and my subconscious is very good at jumping to conclusions.

Monday, August 11, 2008

719. Carnival

Welcome to everyone visiting via Simply Jews and Haveil Havalim #177*, the Jewish Blog Carnival. Once in a blue moon I submit a post, and am honored to have been included. And please check out all the other great links in this issue.

Meanwhile, Torah chanting made a rare appearance in last week's New York Times "Metropolitan Diary"!

Dear Diary:

In a sweltering August more than 25 years ago, on a long subway ride with no seat available, I stood holding onto a rail. With my free hand I held up my Hebrew Torah text.

In the early ’80s it was still somewhat novel for women to chant from the Torah. My husband, then a young rabbi, had recruited me to chant all the Torah readings for the High Holy Day pulpit he had signed on for in Texas. And, indeed, preparing all that chanting was a Texas-size task!

As I mumbled along, singsonging the ancient words, I glanced up and saw an Orthodox Jewish man doing precisely the same thing. Our nanosecond of bonding was followed by the fellow’s look of extreme confusion, as he quickly refocused his eyes on his text.

The poor guy. I often wonder: Did he tell anyone of this moment of worlds colliding?

Betsy Teutsch

I could have written this paragraph, too. Then again, I often will not take out my Xeroxed Torah portion to study on the subway if I see an obviously fervently Orthodox man standing nearby. I'm trying to be respectful; I don't want to make the ride uncomfortable for him. On the other hand--I'm proud of chanting, and completely free to read anything I want in a public place. I'm harming no one by looking at a piece of paper. I have no reason to feel bad. But I do, and generally err on the side of this particular manifestation of shalom bayit, i.e. shalom subway.

* From Kohelet: "Vanity of vanities."

Sunday, August 10, 2008

718. Cycle

I still don't like this holiday. Last night I dreamt I was taking a big, important Jewish quiz and was failing miserably, as an examiner sat on the other side of the table and threw out words and concepts I couldn't identify. Then I awoke and remembered it was Tisha be-Av, symbolic culmination of all our collective guilt about failure, transgression, weakness, and lack of faith. This holiday is beginning to feel more a marker of the passage of time for me than even Rosh Hashana and the new year. I'm always reminded that another summer is almost gone and another cycle of heshbon hanefesh, accounting of the soul, is about to begin. And I never feel ready. I want more slow, hot, lazy days to fuel myself for the work ahead, and wish I had put the ones that just passed to better use.

Services last night seemed more somber than usual; perhaps it was just me, again confused about chanting such horrible words to a pretty tune, not nervous, glad to be doing this, as always, but also dreading it. In some ways Eikha is the most difficult trop for me to sing. I never seem to start on the right note, always too low or too high (as last night), and have trouble navigating the wide tonal range while also trying to breathe properly as I sit cross-legged on the floor, hunched over sheets of text and fumbling with a flashlight. It always turns out fine, albeit a little ragged, and I think my struggle is appropriate for the day. And there was a moment last night, as we all joined in the last words of the fifth chapter--

Hashivenu Adonai eilecha...
Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old.

that I heard our voices building on each other like bricks in a fortress wall, and felt strong and protected. I thought of last summer, when I knew this day marked the beginning of the end of my sister-in-law's journey--and then remembered my dear niece, who weathered a year of mourning and emerged on the other side with a great new job, and an even better loving relationship. And my brother, who has also again found comfort and companionship. As if to get the point across, one particular line of Shaharit caught my eye this morning:

"Tears may linger for a night, but joy comes with the dawn." (Psalm 30:6)

After services we studied a text about our partnership with God. Do we ask for God's help this day without justifying our worthiness? Is God, as our partner, expected to give us that help even if we don't hold up our end of the bargain? I don't know the answer, but take comfort in the fact that the cycle of tears and laughter will always continue despite our mistakes, and God's as well.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

717. Ayekah

At Shabbat services the rabbi noted that "Eikha," alas, woe is me, can also be read, with different vowels, as "Ayekah"--where are you? We accept God's rebuke, but God will only hear that question if we shift our emphasis a bit.

Here's a great post about this holiday and the most recent reason we as Jews must ask for God's patience and forgiveness:

What Tisha B’Av Can Teach Us About AgriProcessors

And two others that try to explain the difficult verse I'm about to chant and still don't undertand:

To Prey or to Pray? The Lessons of Famine on Tisha B’Av

Why Will You Cry?

Wishing us all a day of hearing God, being honest with ourselves, looking out for each others' welfare, and striving to learn from our mistakes.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

716. Brahms

A few weeks ago I got a sudden urge to listen to a Brahms motet I had sung about a thousand times before, first in my college chorus and then in a chamber choir. I've given a great deal of thought to the question of what one piece of music I'd bring to a desert island, and this is it. (Sorry, Bach, Carlebach, and The Beatles. I still love you.) In just about six minutes, Schaffe in mir (here's a nice performance by a college choir from the Philippines) conveys just about every single human emotion: contentment, anticipation, discovery, despair, doubt, excitement, ecstasy. I also love Brahms because Brahms loved me--well, not personally, but he clearly luxuriated in female voices, particularly altos. He knew how to write melodies for us, substantial, womanly lines rather than our all-too-frequent "sing an A for as long as you can to support those beautiful sopranos, and then switch to C on the last chord, you lucky people." That is, when we're not holding up entire middle with complex harmonies no one hears because the basses are too loud. I never tire of singing Brahms, even with all the fast and crunchy German. (A language I took up in my senior year of college mainly because I wanted to do greater justice to this composer.)

But I couldn't find Schaffe in mir on any of my CDs or MP3s. I did, however, rediscover a recording of Liebeslieder Waltzes, my second-favorite Brahms piece, which is like a long, lusty, loudly whispered conversation between two lovers as they race hand in hand down cobble-stoned streets, knocking over all the other bustling townspeople in the process. (Here are two of them--the whole cycle is about a half hour long.) I miss being in a chorus where we can breathe together after laughing about nightingales, but listening was almost as satisfying. And hearing Liebeslieder Waltzes made me want to practice chanting, which also challenges me to string together words I only half understand with as much spirit and joy as a choir singing about rum and love. The language, culture, and delivery are very different, but we both dance--the peasant racing urgently from tavern to tavern looking for his lover, and me in place, with decorum, the yad grasping the words on the scroll and pushing my eyes from one to the next faster than my mouth can articulate.

Monday, August 04, 2008

715. Summer Torah

It's taken a few years, but I'm beginning to recognize the different personalities of all our Torot (my synagogue owns seven in regular use, and a few others suitable only for Simhat Torah dancing). I recently learned that we have a "summer Torah," the snowbird sefer of the bunch, spiritually in Florida for the rest of the year but eager to serve from July through Labor Day. It (she) could be mistaken for our newest Torah, both sharing cherry wood Atzei Hayyim, crisp, white parchment, and stately calligraphy. But the yad tracks in this scroll, like a network of laugh lines visible only when you look deeply into someone's eyes and are suddenly aware that they've been around the block a few times, but with great humor, are faint and numerous, like a spider web or safety net outlining the tops of letters. They were all over Parashat Mattot, proof that other nervous people had pressed down a little too hard for about a hundred years in order to stay focused and perhaps distract themselves from the scrutiny of the cantor sitting a few feet away.

I'm getting to know this Torah in fleeting moments separated by a week or two, like the story I heard many times about stolen kisses behind the synagogue between my aunt and uncle, right before he was about to stand at the bimah for his Bar Mitzvah and she was just 12 years old. They were together for about 70 years after that. That's how I sometimes feel in front of this big, friendly, summer Torah, knowing that a lifelong relationship is ahead of us.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

714. Subway

(I write this from just outside of Boston, where I'm sitting on a dear friend's porch enjoying the fact that I forgot to bring my phone charger and the wireless connection is intermittent. It was a long, long week and this is a short vacation, but a really wonderful one so far.)

Last Saturday morning I awoke in a panic, heart pounding, hands sweaty and cold. I don't remember all the details of the nightmare, but it involved standing at the bimah and chanting Torah--specifically, the Torah portion I was about to read in a few hours, which had been echoing in my brain all night long like wisps of white hair drifting off a dandelion. I went to sleep confident that I knew it well, numbers and all. Many, many numbers, repeated with different vowels. We were tight, the numbers and I.

But my subconscious disagreed, so I decided to heed its advice. For an hour I sang the aliyah over and over again from various tikkunim and in many configurations (sitting, standing, words on the page too small, words big and accusing, page half-folded and illegible, etc., just in case it started to rain in the middle of the Sanctuary while I was singing and the ink smudged). Then I remembered that I had to shower and get to services. I was running late by the time I left my house, so decided to take the subway.

The gasoline shortage has kept many New Yorkers in town for the summer, and I think most of those people decided to take my train last Saturday morning at 9:25. As I stood in a sandwich between a large, sweaty man and skinny woman with a pointy pocketbook, I reminded myself that it was also crowded at Sinai, what with 600,000 people (not to mention all those past and future souls) huddling together. So this could be construed as a fitting position for a holy day.

The subway went one station and then stopped, out of service. OK, I'm not all that dense, I get it now, God doesn't like my non-Shabbat-approved activity.

I took a cab instead. By this time I had forgotten my nerves, which perhaps was the Divine plan all along. I read flawlessly, taking to heart a reminder offered before I walked up to the bimah: you're among friends.