Thursday, December 31, 2009

875. Yiddish

Yesterday I got a DVD in the mail from my nephew in California, a video from 2000 of my sister-in-law z"l starring in as Dorothy in her retirement community's theatrical production of "The Wizard of Oz"—in Yiddish. She was quite a ham (that doesn't sound quite right in this context, but it's true). It was, shall we say, a colorful amateur event, but she and her friends were definitely pros at Yiddish. I felt like I understood most of it even though I didn't, a kind of gut comprehension without grammar or vocabulary. The sounds were comfortable in my ears. When I was very little, my parents used to speak (mostly yell) Yiddish above me, literally, as if I were a small boat under a big bridge of loud language that acted as both detour and shelter. I never cared to understand, nor did they offer to teach; Yiddish was a secret code of old people, not applicable in any way to my life. In recent years I've tried to get excited by the current Yiddish renaissance, a language and culture now very cool—but it's been hard to shake those old misconceptions. I can't see myself speaking Yiddish because I can't imagine living my parents' lives, and the two seem inextricably entwined.

But watching my sister-in-law sing with such Bronx-inflected joy—as if the very sound of each word transported her back to the happiest of childhood times—I was jealous that the language is mine in sensation only, not tachlis. Still, this is better than nothing. Chanting Torah seems to work the same way. I understand only a small fraction of the words, but the minute I learned how to do it, I knew it was my language long ago. I just had to wait for the right time to dig it out and start using it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

874. Paranoia

Amazing how quickly time passes when you're not doing anything. Well, that's not exactly true; I managed to tackle a number of overdue projects, but they're just ploys to avoid the big one or two that perennially float to the top of my "to do" list. I still have a few days left before real life resumes on Monday, however—I just need to begin one of the Big Items and I'll feel marginally victorious. ("It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it." —Pirkei Avot.)

My not doing much also consisted of an epic battle with the cable company. If I were paranoid, I'd be sure these modern robber barons had it out for me because I downgraded my TV service last week. But I'm not, so must conclude that incompetence is why my internet connection went down twice in two days, each instance blamed on my faulty equipment but then revealed to be the cable co.'s fault. After the first time, I wasted three hours shlepping back and forth to their office (a place as grim as one of the pits of Hell) for a new modem, which didn't work when I hooked it up. After the second, I yelled for many minutes at a telephone support person who insisted that I must be mistaken, her computer said I was online. The drama culminated when a tech person knocked on my door, unannounced, at 8AM this morning to "fix" the "problem." No one had told him that the connection was already up and running.

So I spent most of the last few days alternately trying not to scream, berating myself for getting annoyed at this relatively tiny blip in the rhythm of life, and laughing at the absurdity of it all. Then I spent the evening flipping through millions of computer-based TV shows, my brain atrophying with each passing minute. I need to put the experience in a larger context. Chaos (tohu vavohu) preceded creation; maybe these odd few days were a necessary preamble to creativity about to burst forth. And if they weren't, I can still watch all ten streaming seasons of "Law and Order: SVU" in one marathon sitting and then wait for my brain to simply overload and reboot.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

873. Happy Secular Gregorian!

A few days early (a true miracle), here's the holiday card I just sent to a bunch of family, friends, and colleagues. I celebrate the end of every year by pairing a favorite photo with a quote. This year's image is from my July Cape Cod vacation, accompanied by the words of John Ruskin:

"Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

Wishing all who read this a new decade of clearing clouds, and the most interesting kinds of weather in 2010.

Monday, December 28, 2009

872. "All fat is the Lord's"

It must be true (and therefore I don't feel so guilty about eating dessert) because it says so in Lev. 3:16, as my good friend Chevrutablogger pointed out—and she should know, because she just started a wonderful new blog about Jewish food, "jew makes food". I highly recommend checking it out and following her ongoing adventures in cooking, knishes, schmaltz, and other fun topics.

871. Parashat Vayigash and cable TV

I'm not a big fan of change, much as I appreciate the need for it in my life. For the past 12 years I've had a ridiculously good deal with cable TV; my building bought it in bulk, folding the cost into my maintenance. So I essentially got a zillion channels for free. But there were many tenants who wanted neither cable nor to subsidize those who did. This didn't dissuade the co-op board, however, since the deal was advantageous with respect to some archaic tax laws.

Then, last year, the archaic laws were repealed, a good thing overall, but not with respect to cable. My free ride was over. I surely can't afford to pay actual money for the kind of TV to which I've become accustomed. Truth is, I watch very little, mostly on broadcast channels, and use those other thousand to extend procrastination and fuel boredom until I get so annoyed with myself that I have to do the thing I was avoiding.

So on Thursday morning, with mixed feelings but knowing I was doing right by my bank balance, I lugged the fancy, LED-festooned box back to the cable TV office and opted instead for the minimum amount of service possible by plugging the cable directly into my TV. Conveniently, last week I bought wires to attach my laptop to my TV (I'm a gadget freak, within the confines of my tightwad inclinations). So now I can still watch, via Boxee, Hulu, and Netflix, on a nice, shiny 32" screen, much of what was on those million channels. (Some day soon more people will watch like this, and cable companies will be unmasked for the robber barons they really are.)

Back to change. I was alarmed at how unsettled I felt about this whole thing. It brought back memories of that first rush when hooking up cable years ago in Queens; I took the day off work and spent hours flipping back and forth between MTV and CNN, marveling at the modernity of it all. Last week I bored all my friends with my tale of cable woe. Even though I now have access to more programs than ever before, I didn't want to get used to a different, less spontaneous routine. Although I never watched those thousands of home decorating and bizarre reality shows, I still wanted to know they were there, symbols of comfortable middle-classness. Abandoning them felt like failure, which I know makes no sense at all.

After a few days fiddling with the new setup, I now feel less a cheapskate and more a high-tech pioneer. The newness is fun. I thought of this on Shabbat, when the rabbi spoke about the phrase "fertile and increase greatly" as it appears in the last line of Parashat Vayigash:

"Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly." (Genesis 47:27)

She compared this to other "fertile and increase greatly" instances in the Torah. In most, producing offspring is paired with the idea of acquiring land or conquering a people or place. In one notable case it isn't—when God predicts the future of Ishmael, an outsider, an "other". I'm greatly simplifying the rabbi's point, but what I took away was that being out of step with a dominant practice—in this case, following literally the commandment to have children, especially lots of them—can make us feel like "other" as well, without rights to mastery or dominion. But we need to remember that there can be other interpretations of "fertile": giving birth to new ideas, for example, or healing and repairing old ones.

It seem sacrilegious to compare Torah with cable TV, but I was feeling just this—I am a lesser person for not having the same cable channels as the rest of the world. But there are other interpretations of "a million channels": mine happen to be on the computer. Turning it around (“There are seventy faces to the Torah: Turn it around and around, for everything is in it.” —Bamidbar Rabba 13:15), I thought about other parts of my life where I'm reluctant to look beyond the p'shat, the literal, majority view. Sometimes it's easier to follow the crowd, even when the cost is too high in the long run. I guess I should be grateful to my robber-baron cable company for their role in this little epiphany.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

870. Caught up

For the time being. I don't even have a Torah portion to learn; no upcoming chanting on the horizon. My challenge now is to take advantage of this open space—work on projects I've put off for too long, hang out with friends, go to the gym, refrain from panicking about work that hasn't yet materialized (but will; it always does, somehow), do... nothing.

I spent some of that nothing time last night figuring out how to hook up my laptop to my TV. It worked, which means that when my three students come here to learn trope in preparation for their group Bat Torah this spring, we can all be in the same room—including the one who's in Brazil for four months, joining us via Skype. The newest technology meets the oldest. Maybe that's why the Masoretes left off all the vowels; they're too small to be seen by a webcam.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

869. The right place

Last Shabbat morning I chanted the maftir (extra section specific to the holiday), this week about the offerings at the Tabernacle (a usual collection of rams, lambs, goats, silver, etc.). The first batch, read on the first day of Hanukkah, was from Nachshon ben Aminadav, the same Nachshon who made the first leap into the about-to-part Sea of Reeds. Inaugurating that journey certainly merits the honor of being at the front of the line.

One of the most stressful parts of Torah reading for me has been simply finding my place within a forest of letters on tall, narrow parchment cliffs. Generally, the previous reader places the yad above the place where he or she left off, but it tends to roll away by the time I step over to the bima (and if not then, definitely when the scroll is closed as the person having the aliyah says the blessing). Ideally, I will have already glanced at the beginning of my portion and seared its position into my brain, so when the sefer Torah re-opens my eyes can zoom to the right place. But life is rarely ideal. More often, long seconds tick by as I scan the rolling ocean of letters in search of the particular one that needs to keep me afloat; a rabbi or two will jump in if I begin to sink. We always find it, and I've learned not to panic or tell myself, "Hey, you've looked at those words A MILLION TIMES already. They are right in front of you now, fool," because I've seen the Torah reading word-search dilemma affect even those who can recite the whole Torah by memory, like my rabbis.

This week was almost too easy; the maftir came immediately after the priestly blessing, which is written in the scroll in three distinctive, stepped lines (kind of like the traditional hand position used by the priest as he said it). Despite my tendency to sink into self-doubt, I've come to appreciate those moments where it's not so easy, and two, three, four bodies need to pore over the scroll to find the right place. They're demonstrating what we should all do—turn those words over and over until we figure out where and how to begin our own particular portions of life.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

868. Light

Not too many posts here lately, I'm sorry to say--during my woefully tiny daily writing window, I've been busy struggling with a longer piece for my class. For now, wishing everyone a wonderful, renewed and rededicated season of light. Here's how it looked tonight from my window, with parts of Manhattan and Queens in the distance.

Monday, November 30, 2009

867. A new person

Mazal Tov to the Velveteen Rabbi family on the arrival of their son, Andrew Wynn Zuckerman! May he grow up healthy and happy in a world filled with peace, where everyone has the freedom to write in blogs and say, think, and believe however they wish.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

866. Spoken

OK, enough about controversial topics for the time being. Last week, thanks to a link to this post included in my daily Google alert for the word "Judaism" (more some other time about that treasure trove of an email), I discovered this wonderful site:

Hebrew Audio Bible

They're spoken audio files of the entire Tanakh, recorded many years ago by Abraham Shmuelof, who died in 1994. He had a fascinating life—born in Jerusalem, fought with Menachem Begin in the Irgun, taken prisoner of war in 1941, converted to Catholicism, became a Benedictine monk in 1948. He subsequently joined the Greek Catholic Church, and was ordained as a priest in 1956. He may have changed religions but never lost his passion for Hebrew language and liturgy, as proven by these recordings.

I had heard some of them before on the Mechon-Mamre site, but didn't pay much attention—they were just some old guy speaking Hebrew, a diversion from the cool online tikkun. Revisiting these MP3s on the easier-to-navigate Audio Bible site, I discovered how conversational and nuanced this reading is—he understands every word and so tells the story, rather than simply reciting it. There's something uncanny about ancient Hebrew sounding so much like a living language; it's beautiful and even chilling in spots. I listened to the section I chanted last week and came away with a new understanding of how to phrase (even though the trop does most of that on its own) and convey the gravity and elegance of these words.

I can't wait for the weather to get a little warmer so I can bring up the site on my iPod, put on headphones, and take a long walk in the park as the Torah resonates in my ears.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

865. A shanda

This is old news now (a whole week) but worth spreading at any time. A woman was detained (not arrested, but taken to a police station for questioning) at the Kotel for wearing a tallit. I respect the fact that some find it offensive to see a woman in a tallit, and understand the need for both single-sex and egalitarian areas of the Wall. More than that, however, I support the right of everyone to pray as they wish in a public place—especially one that represents the strength and unity of the Jewish people. This group of women, which happened to include some of my dear friends and teachers, did not behave disruptively, go into the men's section, or dress immodestly. Their tallitot were under their coats so as not to attract attention. (Which is sad. I'm proud when I wear a tallit, for the heritage it signifies, the visible connection to other Jews. You'd think that in Israel, of all places—a country whose flag is a tallit—this symbol could represent and be embraced by all, not just half the population.)

What right does anyone have, especially in a democracy, to violently disrupt peaceful, heartfelt prayer because it doesn't fit one particular interpretation of what prayer should be? What right did men have to enter the women's section if women aren't allowed to enter the men's section? How can I consider Israel my home if Israel limits my ability to observe the religion that makes it my home? In the words of Nofrat Frenkel, the woman who was detained, from this article in the Forward:

"The morning of Rosh Hodesh Kislev, November 18, was a cold Jerusalem morning. We stood, 42 Women of the Wall, and prayed in the women’s section. Our tallitot were hidden under our coats; the sefer Torah was in its regular bag. There was no booing, no pushing, no shouting. We were surprised that our service passed off without any disturbance, and we thought that, perhaps, they had already become accustomed to our presence and that we could even read from the Torah, opposite the stones of the Kotel. Then, just moments after we had removed the sefer Torah from its bag, two men entered the women’s section and began abusing us. All we wanted was to conclude our prayers in peace, so we decided to forgo the Torah reading there and go, as on every other Rosh Hodesh, to read the Torah at the alternative site. As we were exiting with me carrying the Torah, a policeman met us and began forcefully pushing me toward the nearby police station. Our pleas and explanations that we were on our way to the alternative site were of no use. I was transferred for questioning to the station at David’s Citadel. All I had on me was my tallit, my siddur and a sefer Torah.

In my interrogation, I was asked why I was praying with a tallit when I knew that this was against the Law of the Holy Places. I am an Israel Defense Forces officer, a law-abiding citizen, a volunteer for the Civil Guard — I have never incurred even a parking fine — and the idea of having broken the law was most trying. Nevertheless, I cannot allow my basic right to freedom of religious worship to be trampled because of a court ruling given years ago.

It is most doubtful that this ruling would be accepted today. In the wake of the Conservative and Reform movements, during the past 10 years, people in the Orthodox world have come to understand that the woman’s place is no longer restricted to the kitchen. Feminist Orthodox women are demanding to take an active part in Jewish life. Egalitarian Orthodox synagogues, in which women don tallitot and lead services, are popping up like mushrooms after rain. The “public’s sensitivity” has changed.

The Kotel belongs to all the people of Israel. The Kotel is not a Haredi synagogue, and the Women of the Wall will not allow it to become such."

Here are some other articles and commentary about the incident:

Woman wearing talit at Kotel detained (The Jerusalem Post)

A Wall For Us All (Forward editorial)

Police arrest woman for wearing prayer shawl at Western Wall (Ha'aretz)

Tallits bring out the worst in people (

Wear a Tallit... Go to Jail! (an excellent blog post by a rabbi about why it's really halakhically OK for women to wear tallitot)

864. Fitting in (part 2)

(And finally, continued from here, the rest of my thoughts about that Shabbat talk from a week and a half ago.)

The speaker's conclusion: These two areas, education and outreach, must become a priority if liberal Judaism (meaning, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and all other non-Orthodox streams) is to flourish. If we fail at these tasks, we'll disappear. I agree, to an extent. Yes, Hebrew literacy is necessary. But learning for its own sake won't keep us alive; for that, we need parents and communities to teach and model a love of Judaism. Many liberal families do this very, very well, even if their kids don't learn Talmud; conversely, many Orthodox kids are crushed by the weight of study and traditions that leave no room for sunlight or exploring one's own individuality. No single approach is without its problems.

Still, suggested the rabbi, whether Jewish knowledge proves helpful later in life, or you discover you hate it, you can't rebel against if you don't first know it. And the ability to rebel is a good thing—better than complacency based on ignorance. True, but this is a risky approach. Some (like me) become so alienated by having Jewish education forced down their throats by rote that they stay away for decades. Perhaps I would have felt differently if my parents had been religiously enthused—but they were disillusioned as well, so we went through the motions of observance without any passion. Identifying with a religion that none of my role models could get excited about made me feel like a hypocrite, and I know I'm not the only one with this problem. Yes, in the non-Orthodox world these days there are new independent minyanim and vibrant communities (like my synagogue) to re-kindle that excitement—but we're still a minority.

This is not to say that non-Orthodox men and women don't live great Jewish lives through mitzvot, tikkun olam, etc., but we tend not to do so out of a sense of religious obligation. Which led to the speaker's other main point. For the Orthodox, mitzvot are a matter of requirement. The rest of us, he postulated, tend to see Judaism as a choice. We identify more strongly with the greater community than with the smaller subset of our religious group. We're afraid we'll lose touch with the world if, for example, we avoid the computer on Shabbat. We choose to follow the rules that are relevant to our own lives.

I have mixed feelings about this point, too. Judaism is a religion of interpretation and balance. I feel obligated to follow some of the rules, but also to respect my role as a person living in the the world today. Lekh lekha, "go to yourself," can also mean "go to the truest part of yourself." I am a woman of the 21st century; to follow halakha without taking that into consideration is also a kind of disrespect of myself and by extension, of God, in Whose image I'm created. That said, I do feel this tension—it's hard to figure out where choice ends and obligation begins. The liberal Jewish community needs to discover a better way to do that dance or else we'll continue to confuse and alienate those who try to join us.

863. Sunrise

One last piece written in class, about darkness and sunrise:

In college I was a painting major, which meant that I had to fit dozens of hours each week of creating art into a week that already contained dozens of hours of reading the Iliad and contemplating Medieval economics. The best solution I could find was to paint at night, all night, but I hated the smell of turpentine in a tiny, airless studio. So, instead, I moved outside to the lawn in front of my dorm. My friends thought I was clever and eccentric; my teachers, nuts; and I had no idea what I thought because I was too tired. I could see neither my subjects, usually some trees, nor the canvas in front of me, but was determined to draw every possible spark of ambient light into my eyes and then squeeze them back out onto the canvas. I put on headphones and blasted Bach motets into my ears in hopes that soaring voices and geometric harmonies would somehow bounce like sonar off the strange, hulking shapes in front of me and define new shapes through the paint at the end of my brush. I would work until dawn, when light began to seep onto the grass, and then discover how utterly wrong, or completely right, I was about the mirror of creation on my canvas.

862. In between

Another short piece written in class about the state of being in between:


The last of my boxes was dragged out to the street and hoisted into a van by a large moving man, who then slammed shut the back doors.

"See you there," he yelled as he climbed into the front seat next to an even larger moving man.

I watched the truck drive away, grabbed my knapsack and the carrier with my cat, and hailed a cab. I could have taken the subway—I was going only a few stops from Queens to Manhattan—but the occasion seemed to demand a grander entrance.

There was no traffic over the Triboro Bridge. All the landmarks I used to see from my bedroom window—the Citicorp building, the big red, flashing "History Channel" sign—moved from one side of my sight to the other. We reached my new building and life, and I took the elevator up to my apartment. I had no furniture yet, so sat in sunlight on the newly-finished wood floor and waited.

A half-hour passed, then another. Everything I owned, as well as everything my parents had owned that ended up in my closets after they died, and a lot of stuff their parents owned, as well, were in a truck somewhere between Queens and Manhattan, and I didn't know where. Another hour passed. The sun began to set; it was cold on the floor. The cat and I wondered what it might feel like in this new life, alone by choice, without any reminders of the memories we thought we could rely on. It was terrifying, yet oddly freeing.

Finally, an hour later, there was a knock on my door. "Sorry, we stopped for a burger," said the big moving man sheepishly. I was almost sad to see him, along with the weight of my life behind him in the van.

861. Names

I really will finish this thought soon. Pre-Thanksgiving last-minute client craziness gets worse every year. Such is life; I am grateful for having work at all, so no complaints. Meanwhile, here's a short piece I wrote last night at class, where we continue to study texts about the time in between, twilight, bein ha-sh'mashot. (Names have been changed to protect the, er, anonymous.)

This morning I chanted Torah at my synagogue's minyan, and came home to a package from my nephew in California. Bruce is 10 years older than me; my half brother, his father, was 35 years older. My father was very, very old, even when I was a little baby. My brother died earlier this year and Bruce, when he cleaned out his dad's house, found a box filled with dusty papers. Inside one envelope was a cracked, black leather wallet sealed with a snap. Inside that were yellowed, onionskin pages folded in thirds, dated 1936 and crowned with a photo of my father looking like a sly Cary Grant. At the top, one signature with my father's original name, Daniel [Original last name]. On the back, a typed declaration: "This is to certify that the name of this person is now 'Daniel [New last name].'" Below that, he signed his new name.

I always knew my father had changed his name, but everyone in my family, my brother included, disagreed about when. At the immigration office? Five years after he arrived? All my brother remembered was that he was born with one name, and then it became another.

I always wondered what my father would think of my chanting Torah, an unimaginable thing for a woman to do in his world. Perhaps he would be proud but confused, as if he found out I was really from Mars, some kind of alien daughter. He would love me just the same, but be wary. As I looked at those two signatures, one from the old world and the other from the new, and imagined a handsome man with slicked-back hair and a snazzy mustache, I knew he would appreciate my daring with the same spirit as his own when he decided to break from the past and take this new name, my name.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

860. Fitting in (part 1)

It was a lovely, busy Shabbat, and would have been even more jam-packed (an afternoon teaching; a Minha bar mitzvah; food) if if I hadn't fallen asleep on the sofa after lunch. But I had a great nap, in retrospect the perfect way to spend a cold, rainy afternoon. Now I'm trying to wake up in time to head off to a friend's very cool birthday party at a museum. Before that, some thoughts about the topic of last night's community dinner at my synagogue. A smart and funny rabbi risked a riot (well, not really, but he discussed some things we usually avoid like the plague) by broaching the subject of what the Orthodox do better than most other Jews. For example: education. Those with a yeshiva background are well-versed in classic texts. Those in recovery from the travesty of afternoon Hebrew school can barely name five important Jewish books (a question that yields depressing answers from this rabbi's non-Orthodox students). Also, outreach. Chabad is everywhere to help the unaffiliated become part of a community. Where are representatives of other denominations? One might think that those streams aren't interested in retaining their disaffected members, especially on college campuses. (And I remember venturing into my college's Kosher Kitchen years ago to find a room filled with people in kippot and payeses who eyed me with suspicion. I left quickly and never returned. I know things have changed a great deal since then, but it's still easier to find like-minded Jewish souls in many cities and universities if you're Orthodox.)

(To be continued.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

859. Watch a Torah being written online...

... it's very cool:

I've been meaning to post this for awhile. What better image to think about right before Shabbat begins?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

858. Religious

Here's something I've been meaning to write about for months... years. I would like to reclaim the the word "religious." A recent article in The Forward got to the gist of the problem:

"... Consciously or unconsciously, liberal Jews often invoke frames that implicitly establish Orthodox Judaism as normative and set up their own forms of Judaism in comparison with Orthodoxy.

The remedy is clear: For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.

This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as 'more religious' or 'more observant,' we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism."

— Ben Dreyfus, "Reframing Liberal Judaism."

Occasionally I go on dates with nice Jewish guys of the liberal persuasion. (Yes, I haven't given up yet.) We generally have an awkward phone conversation beforehand, during which we attempt to be casual as well as deep. At some point we get to hobbies: "So, what do you like to do for fun?" He: [generally sports or travel or tropical fish, or something else macho but sensitive]. Me: "I love to sing." Oh, where? "I was in a chorus for many years, but these days I mostly sing at my synagogue." (Well, what should I do, lie? "I front a neo-punk band in the East Village." I'd be unmasked the minute we met and he saw I didn't have pink hair.)

"A synagogue? Wow, that's interesting." Sometimes the conversation is great after that; we discuss shared interests in Judaism and music, and agree to meet for a drink. More often, however, there's a big pause followed by admissions of guilt: "Are you a cantor? Because I'm not Orthodox." [Hello, if I were an Orthodox woman, I would not be a cantor.] Or, "I haven't gone to services in years, but am very pro-Israel." Or, "Do you eat meat out? I used to date someone who kept kosher, it wasn't a problem." Or, most frequently: "Oh... are you religious?"

I never use that minefield of a word to describe myself. "I observe holidays and love to go to services," I answer. "But I'm happy to meet someone who observes differently than I do." That usually doesn't satisfy the "religious" questioner, however, who applies this label to anyone who attends services on a regular basis and therefore must be a) a professional clergyperson, b) Orthodox, c) Republican, or d) weird. Prejudices vary, but rarely does someone who resembles me fit into his definition of the word. Those conversations usually do not end well. In one case the guy refused to believe I wasn't Orthodox; in another, I was treated to a long complaint about his traditionally observant ex-girlfriend.

Yes, it's for the best that I can weed out these potential disasters during the first phone call. Still, I wish I could use "religious" to mean what it really does, according to Webster's: "manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity." I do believe in God; I do manifest that devotion. My way of doing so is no better or worse, authentic or fake, than that of someone who identifies with any other stream of Judaism. There's no absolute scale of such things, like a credit score. I wish people would stop ascribing the word "religious" to the imaginary top of this non-existent hierarchy.

857. Excerpt

This past week I've been working on an essay for my writing class. (Overdue. But almost done, honestly.) Here's a short excerpt:


For most of my life, I had no idea how mumbling archaic phrases constituted communication with God. When I was a child my father did this three times a day, every day, swaying back and forth in front of the bedroom window wrapped in tallit and tefillin, his only other hobby aside from yelling and watching "Bonanza." Based upon this observation, I concluded that praying was the job of adults, or maybe just old men. In Hebrew school we never discussed who God was, or why we were supposed to talk to Him, but did learn that God expected us to cross lowercase t's only halfway through so they wouldn't resemble a symbol that was bad for the Jews, and also to feed the goldfish matzah meal during Passover. After my mother explained that this would kill Goldie, The Eternal fell greatly in my esteem. He seemed petty and not very nice, and I became wary of anyone who claimed God was an OK guy. My father never explained why he prayed so much, nor did I ask, but whenever he screamed at my mother or slammed doors and stormed out of the house, he reminded me more and more of the crabby old God who was mean to my fish.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

856. Pathetique

Last week I watched a video compilation of photos of a friend's family. The soundtrack was piano music—her mother had been a piano teacher—and after a few seconds I got very flustered. The music was like Cher to Nicholas Cage in "Moonstruck": "Snap out of it!" (followed by a slap across the face). So I stopped watching, and just listened. It was Beethoven's "Pathetique" and "Appassionata" sonatas, to which I'd listened for hours on end as a teenager. The record—midnight blue sleeve featuring a man in a tux disappearing into fog—had been filed in the big living room stereo cabinet since I was a baby, but I became a little obsessed with it in junior high. Every day when I got home from school I'd choose between that and Mendelssohn's violin concerto (b/w Tchaikovsky's), and sprawl out on the gold carpet with the music and my math homework. I think those pieces captivated me because they were conversational in structure, a call and response of melodies, volumes, and emotions. I could imagine myself on one end of the discussion, engaging with the tunes like a close friend as they tried to set the cacophony of my own adolescence into some kind of tonal order.

I hadn't heard the "Pathetique" in years—decades—but after downloading it from iTunes last week, I realized I could sing the whole thing back, note for note (well, if people could sing in 10-part chords). I also had a feeling that other music was also hibernating in my brain, still waiting for a nudge. The "Pathetique" feels like a puzzle piece that was lost and forgotten under the sofa—now something is complete, although I'm not sure what. It may have to do with the fact that it's in the slightly agitated key of C minor. Almost all the music at my synagogue is in C major, a close and calmer cousin:

"Beethoven in C minor has come to symbolize his artistic character. In every case, it reveals Beethoven as Hero. C minor does not show Beethoven at his most subtle, but it does give him to us in his most extrovert form, where he seems to be most impatient of any compromise."
Wikipedia, Beethoven and C minor

(Describing how key signatures reflect mood is a nearly impossible task—I read a book review recently that used the phrase "ekphrastic nightmare." But, like the subtleties of body language, they really do.) Each week on Shabbat I listen for hours as C major helps us organize the discordant messiness of life. Beethoven's key is the same dialect, but with the added message of Lekh Lekha: go! take a chance! Hearing the piano concerto again reminded me that I was once a teenager up for anything, and that person was not as far away as I might think.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

855. Angel

This past Shabbat I read part of Parashat Vayera, including the Rosh Hashanah section where Hagar and Ishmael are banished to the wilderness. During the holiday I generally follow along in English (by the time we get to the Torah service, I'm usually too out of it from having led Shaharit to pay attention any other way), so never noticed the Hebrew pun in Genesis 21:17:

Vayishma Elohim et-kol hana'ar vayikra mal'ach Elohim el-Hagar min-hashamayim vayomer lah mah-lach Hagar al-tire'i ki-shama Elohim el-kol hana'ar ba'asher hu-sham.

God heard the boy weeping. God's angel called Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'What's the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid. God has heard the boy's voice there where he is.

"Mal'ach Elohim": "God's angel." "Mah-lach Hagar": "What's the matter, Hagar?" Surely no coincidence, and I'm also certain there must be volumes of commentary about these two words. I found one online that interprets the colloquial tone of "Mah-lach" as a reminder to take stock at the new year of what's the matter in our own lives that might prevent us from becoming like a "mal'ach." In her d'var Torah this week the rabbi considered the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, as Avram's re-enactment of the trauma of his own youth as destroyer of his father's idols and subsequent banishment. I wonder—does the repeated "mal'ach" serve a similar purpose, asking us find a connection between the pain of Ishmael at that moment, and the pain his ancestors descendants [corrected by aa., 2/13] will experience as they live in hostility with other nations? Or, an interpretation I prefer but probably makes no sense:

"God's angel called Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'Angel Hagar!'"

Maybe the first "malach" is the same as the second, and is God's way of reminding the mother of Ishmael that she's as close to God as an angel and so her son is truly blessed. Hagar gets a raw deal; it felt good to think of this version as I chanted her name.

Friday, November 06, 2009

854. Reminder

A wonderful discussion thread of readers' comments on the NY Times blog about the meaning of life and death:

Is That All There Is?

This page reminded me that we are all philosophers, even if we don't call ourselves by that name, and everyone has something valuable to teach. And nudged me to be grateful once again this morning.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

853. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 6

(Yes, this has been the slowest Yamim Nora'im saga ever. As I was saying, continued from here:)

Mr. Loud and Ms. Louder were just a little annoying, at first. I could hear every note they sang, flat and half a second before I did, but figured they'd settle into a comfortable volume and also become aware of how distracting they were. It didn't happen; as their kavannah grew, their amplification followed close by. I was briefly proud of my ability as a shaliah to incite such levels of spiritual ecstasy. Then I realized they couldn't hear me at all, and I couldn't, either. Their singing quickly became like mosquitoes buzzing in my ears, drowning out my own awareness of any sounds I made.

I began to panic. I didn't have many options. I couldn't leave the bima and walk to the front row to tell them to shut up; public scolding is a bad example of hakhnasat orhim, shalom bayit, and all those other positive qualities I tried to embody as I stood before my fellow congregants. I could cup my ear to try to hear my own voice, but this also looked bad—and I needed both hands to hold the mahzor.

I could ask someone else to scold them. This seemed the best, and only, solution. The guitarist was right behind me, and during the Shema I turned around and hoped she could read lips. "Please tell the front row to be quiet," I mumbled.

"I can't leave!" she whispered back, shocked. Which was true; she had to play again in about 12 seconds.

I was out of ideas. I turned back to the bima and asked God to forgive me for hating those two nice people. It wasn't their fault; they meant well. (Although they had been given previous, gentle admonitions in the past. But today they were praying harder than ever, and forgot.) I encouraged God to bestow them immediately with the gift of pitch, or laryngitis.

We reached the piyyut L'el Orekh Din, and I turned my back on the congregation to face the open Ark. For the first time that morning I could take a deep, private breath and, no longer in the path of other voices, could hear my own. I looked at the words I was singing, about judgment, focus, and mercy, and realized I was being pretty useless as a messenger. Whether or not God judges me, I have no idea. But I judge myself, and knew that I could not bear to waste this gift and responsiblity of a few hours a year when voices follow and blend into mine with energy that bounces off and through me like an electric current.

I turned around to face the congregation and begin the Uvekhen. I waited for sounds from the first row, but could hear only my own. I looked up and saw Mr. Loud and Ms. Louder listening for the first time that morning, and so I did the same.

(Next, eventually: Yom Kippur.)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

852. The route to Whole Foods

The usual start of my work day entails a 10-second commute to the office (also known as the front of the kitchen), followed by the Times online, blogs, coffee, a bagel. Then I'm ready to face the world, more or less. Today I added something new to the routine, a few minutes of writing. Later on I'll engage in another radical act and take a break in the middle of the day to walk east to the local high school and vote (not that it will make much difference, but I need to do it just the same). Then I'll go some more blocks to Whole Foods, my favorite store ever, although I'm as far from a foodie as my cats are from cooking dinner, the most likely scenario for a homemade meal around here. (Yes, I'm proud to be a slothful, ordering-out kind of New Yorker.)

And once again, I'll experience a kind of déjà vu. Seduced by signs that said "Borders Books coming soon!" I began to wander these streets last year out of curiosity when the Whole Foods, as well as an expansive, mall-like block of stores, started to go up. (No Borders has appeared, but I'm patient.) The mall took the place of a tired supermarket and a diner; with a few exceptions, those blocks were like a dustbowl in the middle of the Upper West Side. Now it's a new neighborhood, if somewhat pre-fab, and feels very different.

But the déjà vu wasn't because of my previous trips. The streets over there are wide, the buildings short, unlike the tall, shadowed, narrow blocks near my apartment. You can even see the sky. Not far from Whole Foods is a little police station and a public library in 50s-style white brick, low-ceilinged warrens of fluorescent lights with big windows framed by skinny poplar trees. Behind the police station, a public playground with monkey bars, squealing kids, senior citizens playing chess. The area is old, new, unplanned, messy, and alive, and reminds me of Queens. I grew up in a 6-story red brick building; across the street were wooden single-family homes with unkempt yards where I'd play after school. The massive Skyline Towers a few blocks away could house an entire city, and the between from their canyons knocked the books out of my hands every time I went to visit my wealthier friends. Our own apartment was modern and cheap, all the doors hollow (I was amazed when I moved to Manhattan and discovered that my bedroom could be sealed off and soundproofed with a solid slab of wood). The architecture and characters are different, but something about the walk to Whole Foods creates the same echo in my bones as the songs of birds who lived in the tallest tree in the world, which happened to be right outside my 4th floor window when I was a kid.

Monday, November 02, 2009

851. Art

(This past Shabbat, the rabbi spoke about how the second word of the name of last week's parasha, Lekh Lekha—"Go, go to yourself"—gets all the attention. Thousand of paragraphs ponder the question of what "to yourself" really means—but that first word, "go," is a thorny one. We're good at avoiding "lekh;" we procrastinate, make excuses. This week, suggested the rabbi, "lekh." Follow Avram's lead and just Go. Do something you know you should, but haven't. Once again, as eleven years ago on the weekend of this same parasha, he was talking to me. There are at least three Really Big Things on my "lekh" list, including writing here and elsewhere—so in the spirit, if not the letter, of NaBloPoMo, I return to "lekh" this blog. Hopefully more often.)

Speaking of two-word names, the second part of mine has seen more action than usual. I've been thinking about making some personal art for first time in about—yikes—20 years. Last week I wandered through the Jewish Museum's "Reinventing Ritual" exhibit, getting inspired by interactive omer calendars and tiny bits of Torah literally prepared for ingestion. And yesterday morning I went to a wonderful talk by an artist and rabbi at the Museum of Biblical Art about ritual objects and sacred space. Judaism emphasizes the holiness of time, but we spend all our time in space—so that aspect of existence deserves honor, as well. But there's the whole second commandment thing, observed the artist, so some believe that "Jewish art" should stick to a prescribed set of boundaries lest we enter idol territory. Our ritual objects and prayer spaces are often blandly safe and clichéd as a result, which does no honor to the limitless beauty of Jewish concepts. I agree; I think God wants us to make art as well as pray in the spirit of radical amazement.

And yesterday afternoon, I got to experience a very different sort of sacred space than my usual venue. A friend had a party at her church, located in a tiny Queens storefront right under the el. But it could have been a castle, love transforming the room into a place of precious beauty. There were gospel singers, and the rich texture of an interfaith family so solid that only we foreigners from Manhattan were crass enough to notice. After a while the sound of the trains rumbling overhead began to remind me of the airplanes that crisscrossed the sky every few minutes above the apartment where I grew up, and I forgot how much I hated to cross that river. I felt safe and at home in a room more glorious in its humility than any grand sanctuary.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

850. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 5

(Continued from here.)

(One night last week I dreamt that my synagogue decided to have another set of High Holy Day services in Guadalajara, Mexico, and I was asked to help lead. We'd stay at a luxury resort, but the services themselves would be at at 7-Eleven on the side of the highway so as to reach the most people. It sounded like great fun, especially the lounging-by-the-pool part. I think this means I need a vacation.)

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah I was at the Usual Church, where we have Shabbat services for half the year. (Only families with young kids got to use the actual, gorgeous synagogue this Yamim Nora'im, which wasn't large enough for the rest of us.) I love this place, which is big, grey, unassuming, unadorned (in deference to our co-tenancy, and well above and beyond the call of duty, they removed all church-related symbols from the walls years ago), and home to five or six different religious groups and a few small orchestras. Show up on the right winter evening and you can hear African sacred music against the backdrop of Shostakovitch or someone's Bar Mitzvah Torah portion. My favorite parts of the church sanctuary are two slightly bedraggled stone angels on either side of altar; I've decided they must be the serafim and ofanim we invoke in the Amidah, always standing tall despite decades of damage from a leaky roof.

Although I tried to be fashionably on time, I was still the first one in the Secret Rabbi Room. By 8:55 we had all gathered and hugged hello. Everyone was so energetic and happy that you might have thought we were about to run a marathon instead of stand immobile and pray for three hours. At the bima, I was amazed at how crowded it looked even at 9AM (one benefit of dividing a few thousand people into two locations instead of three). I began to sing: "Hareni mikabelet..." and heard what sounded like an echo, but couldn't have been; it was a man's voice. At this church, unlike yesterday's, I could both see mouths moving along with the prayers as well as hear what was coming out of them. The sound from the back of the sanctuary was a warm hum, a blanket of words alongside mine. From the first row, however, I could hear every utterance—flat, loud, a half a beat behind—as clear as if the singer were an inch from my ear.

I have a feeling that our first-row people, who always sit in the first row, have cousins in every religious tradition that ever existed. Ms. Loud is a champion volunteer, and once donated an important internal organ to a total stranger, saving his life. Goodness personified, she sings with boundless zeal. She is also tone deaf. Mr. Louder has been studying holy texts (the Torah, in this case, but his Buddhist, Muslim, and Methodist counterparts use different books) since birth. He can summon up appropriate verses at the blink of an eye. He loves to pray and occasionally stands and shouts his favorite lines, sometimes even a second or two before the hazzan gets to them. He is also tone deaf.

And there they both sat, about two feet away from me.

(To be continued.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

849. Big black dot detour

I usually avoid mixing this space with the design part of my life, but am violently, uncontrollably compelled to note something I saw earlier today. I keep pretty good track of local culture, but managed to miss this past summer's rebranding of the New York City Opera. On a bus going down Central Park West a few hours ago, I noticed banners hanging from almost every single light pole advertising the Opera's new season. The banners were white, with black sans serif type at the top and the bottom, and smack in the middle: a big black dot. Very big. Solid black.

I pondered this for block after block, checking to see if perhaps I'd spied an incomplete or defaced banner. No, they were all like this.

Did the dot represent a super-sized, filled-in "O" for Opera, like I used to do as a kid with a ballpoint pen to all the words in my mother's magazines? (Any letter with a hole in it was fair game.) Was it cultural commentary on the endless vortex of bad taste begging to be filled with high culture? Or tongue in cheek (opera is a black hole that will suck you in for eternity if you're not careful)?

I couldn't guess, but could tell that it was really ugly.

I guess I move in the wrong circles. Here's an explanation of the dot. I admire the designer's chutzpah, and the client's sense of adventure. Occasionally, in the world of graphic design, ugly spends some time as the new beautiful. I imagined presenting this concept to my most forward-thinking client; even they would laugh nervously, and check to see if I had a fever.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

848. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 4

(Continued from here.)

(Update on the fire: What a strange week this was. I felt like I was living in a fog, biding time until a catastrophe befell me, too. The loud hum of industrial-strength air filters working 24/7 outside my door didn't help, either. But on Thursday, when I realized Shabbat was only a day away and I needed to clean up and get ready, I straightened up the mess both in these rooms and in my head, said another prayer of thanks, and resumed being myself.)

Back to the first day of Rosh Hashanah:

It was strange, at first, to be in front of everyone in an unfamiliar place and immediately have to pray out loud. I'd always had a chance to stand for a minute or two on the stage or bima a few days before I led at other locations; when I finally opened my mouth I knew, sort of, what it might feel like. Not this time. But after a few minutes I realized that the audio guys had done their job, and we were loud—probably very loud. There wasn't a monitor, but I could hear an echo bouncing off the walls, like a polite reply from the chandelier: yes, you're up here. And the view from the bima wasn't much different than what I saw years ago from the low first row of the balcony: a restless quilt of seats and people punctuated by the occasional white column and gold balustrade, Jesus and Mary of the Back Window demurely obscured by a diaphanous opaque white cloth upon which were embroidered 20-foot-high Hebrew letters for the word mizrah (east).

We began to sing and pray, and it felt like home. I couldn't hear the congregation but saw their mouths moving, enough to assure me that we were all in this together. I stood next to not just one, but two rabbis; I was the final link in a chain of electricity, energy magnifying and multiplying as it traveled to my side of the bima.

We reached the repetition of the Amidah, and I called each of the patriarchs and matriarchs by name. As is customary in my congregation, we linger a bit on Ya'akov and Leah, as if to say: you may be last on the list, but not in our hearts. I tried to picture them as I prayed, imagining gentle, dark-haired people serving flat bread in low houses alongside the desert. We smiled at one another; I could almost hear them singing back to me.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

847. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 3

(Continued from here.)

(As I was in the middle of writing this post, a dozen firemen ran into the hallway outside my apartment and tried to knock down my neighbor's door. The hallway filled with smoke. I opened my door, and a fireman yelled to stay inside. So I put my two cats into the carrier, grabbed my wallet and some photos, tried to remember to breathe, paced, prayed, and posted on Facebook from my phone, which made me feel much less alone. Sirens, breaking glass, awful smells. But finally the ambulances and fire trucks left, and I learned that no one was hurt. A downstairs neighbor had left a candle burning, and it fell over and started the fire. That apartment and another on this floor were seriously damaged. I am very, very lucky, and thank God that I can sit here now and write some more about the New Year, or write anything at all.)

Back to Rosh Hashanah:

The Yamim Nora'im began with one big service at Massive Church, where all the rabbis and the hazzan stood together at the bima and welcomed 2,500 of us into the new year. These sound like unmanageable, un-haimishe numbers, but it wasn't like that at all. Imagine, instead, an entire small town lucky enough to fit under one roof. The ceiling stretched to the heavens, but the balconies aspired toward ground level—so low that their first rows (where I once sat with the choir) were even closer to the rabbis than seats way up front, down below. We all seemed to meet somewhere around the Ark that was situated right between both levels.

The following morning, as in past years, I got up at the crack of dawn to warm up—but soon discovered that I was pretty warm already. Ever since this moment two years ago, my voice has been different—more pliable, easier to navigate between chest and head—I don't know exactly how or why, and part of me keeps waiting for it to change back into that old, tense kind of voice. But so far so good. I sang, dozed, sang some more, and then walked ten blocks (instead of three miles, what a relief). I wanted to run, actually. I couldn't wait to get there and begin the adventure once again.

I slipped under the right side of the stage and waited on the Laura Ashley sofa as people rushed around and complained about the sound (a bit muffled the night before, and those in the back couldn't hear at all). The audio guy swore he fixed the problem, but no one else was sure. Since I would be standing at the far left of the bima and the sitting room was under stage right stairs, I had to lead the way upstairs. We hugged and wished each Shanah Tovah, and I headed down a little hallway—which turned a corner to another hallway. For a second I thought I went the wrong way and we'd have to wander below the bima for 40 more seconds, minutes, or years—but then I saw the stairway, and the light of the sanctuary above it. We climbed up the carefully engineered platform and, in front of a gathering crowd, took our places right below the Ark.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

846. Ending and beginning

(I know, I still have to finish writing about the rest of the Yamim Nora'im—but I think I'll work backwards.)

Simhat Torah, last night and today: imagine the most fun wedding in the world. And you're one of the betrothed, and everyone else is family. Not all close family—some distant relatives, a few of them rude (would they ignore the rabbi's polite plea and dare to take flash photos in the middle of services at their own shuls, I wonder?)—but even those annoying cousins get into the spirit, dancing and singing as if today were the last time to dance and sing ever.

The evening begins with slow drama. The sanctuary is cleared; little kids run up and down the middle of the big space and the rest of us grab seats along the side, forgetting that we'll sit for only a minute. The rabbis beckon us to come closer to the Ark—nothing to be afraid of! But every year we're tentative, as if traversing the empty expanse of carpet is too intimate an approach. Finally we straggle up front, and a rabbi begins to sing:

"You have been clearly shown that the Lord is God; there is none beside God." (Deuteronomy 4:35)

Has this been clearly shown to me? Do I really know? I can't, ever, but at that moment I do. The voices become more insistent with each verse, and in that wind of song is the truth of everything I don't understand but know is life, is a miracle, good and perfect.

Seven hakafot, seven rounds of careening around the sanctuary, each one about 20 minutes long, and the music keeps getting faster and faster. Sometimes I'm bored going around and around—it seems to defy our culture of always moving forward. How often can I hear the same snippet of tune, see the back doors fly by once again? But then the person grasping my left hand leaves, and I open it and wait for someone else to latch on. They do—and our chain snakes inside a different circle and around a new Torah, and the dance is completely changed. Sometimes we go so fast that I get dizzy, and it's all I can do to avoid tripping over my own feet. Sometimes we barely move, trying to squeeze between other chains that have nimbler leaders. Fast, slow, fast, never the same.

I walk out after a few hours to see hundreds of people waiting on a line that reaches around the block. We throw a good party, and all of New York knows it. It hasn't stopped feeling like home—it's still my music, still my rabbis jumping up and down in bliss with their arms wrapped around the sifrei Torah—and I'm proud that so many guests want to experience this joy, but there's no longer any room left for me. It's OK, because I return the next morning when the shul-hoppers of the Upper West Side are still in bed. We dance again, and this time I can see my own feet when I hook onto a long line of people who try to wave me aloft like a big banner as we twirl around the room.

"Last hakafah!" yells the rabbi. This is it—the culmination of every moment of prayer and pain, wish and regret, laugh and tear of the past month. The tune is a new one to me, from Isaiah 27:13:

Vehayah bayom hahu yitaka beshofar gadol uva'u ha'ovdim be'eretz Ashur vehanidachim be'eretz Mitzrayim vehishtachavu l'HASHEM behar hakodesh biYerushalayim.

"It shall be on that day that a great shofar will be blown, and those who are lost in the land of Assyria and those cast away in the land of Egypt will come [together], and they will prostrate themselves to HASHEM on the holy mountain in Yerushalayim."

That's us. We heard the shofar, and here we are. We all join in the last dance, even those sitting along the sides, and carve the space into concentric circles that go in different directions around the Torot.

Suddenly it's over. We sigh and straighten our tallitot, and push the bima into the middle of the room. We say farewell to eight of the scrolls as they make a final circuit around the sanctuary. Three more remain, and with their help we end and begin once again.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

845. 140 more characters

Hey, look, a book of Torah tweets! Including some contributors I know, how about that.

Twitter Torah

844. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 2

(Continued from here.)

(I should add, in case anyone read my earlier post and wondered: no, the cold didn't get worse, nor was there a replay of 2005, thank goodness.)

Since our same group of musicians and hazzanim have been doing this for years now, we didn't need much rehearsal time. I spent an hour with one group (the Smaller Church Ensemble), and a few days later headed over to the Massive Church to practice with that band. I entered by the side door, awash in memories of racing through it at 8:59AM in order to join the choir for "Mah Tovu" at 9:00, and ran into the rabbinic intern. He seemed anxious to leave. "How was your rehearsal?" I asked.

"Nothing happened," he laughed, and darted off.

The church interior looked much the same as I remembered, but a lot cleaner. Great chandeliers hung from the ceiling, their lights warming domes, vaulted arches, and vast eggshell walls adorned with gilt quotes about God and love. (If you squinted, you might not even notice the tiny New Testament attributions right below.) Two large men were hammering nails into a platform situated between the stage-like altar area and the floor, creating a middle ground for service leaders that nether towered over the congregation nor sunk within it. This time, the stage would be reserved for the Ark alone. Off to the side, another group of men with many different accents yelled and gesticulated: the platform wasn't right, Rosh Hashanah was in two days, and there was no time left for a sound check. Meanwhile, the musicians had given up and gone to lunch.

I was quite happy to wait, however, and so the gabbai gave me a tour of this church's version of the Secret Rabbi Room. It was the best ever, an elegant warren of connecting rooms beneath—within—the stage and accessible by recessed mahogany doors on either side. There were two Laura Ashley-decorated bathrooms with gold faucet handles, a central sitting room with a long, upholstered built-in sofa, tiny windows covered by gently ruched chintz curtains (OK, not much of a view, just the alleyway and some garbage cans, but the curtains made up for it) and about 50 closets, each large enough to hold a choir robe. A clever Manhattan realtor could probably get $3,000 month. (Hey, all those closets!)

The band finally returned with their sandwiches but the sound engineer was still moving mikes, so I huddled with the musicians in a corner to run though bits and pieces unamplified. I still had no idea what it would feel like to sing into a mic in front of 2,000 people, and realized I wouldn't know until it happened for real. I walked past the cantor, who was busy analyzing the engineering of a large wooden platform. "Anything you need to tell me?" I asked. (We hadn't exchanged a word about the service since he emailed weeks earlier to let me know where I was leading.) "No," he smiled, and went back to carpentry. Neither he, nor the yelling hammerers, displaced musicians, or bored gabbais, seemed bothered by the chaos, and so neither was I. I walked out into a light rain, decided to play hooky from work for a little while, and treated myself to an omelet at a nearby diner.

(Continued here).

Monday, October 05, 2009

843. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 1

Hello again.

So I did a lot of writing during the month of Elul--just not here. Every single day I reviewed exactly how I missed the mark, and scribbled answers with a big, thick green pen into an actual paper-based notebook. It was exhausting, even more so for my brain and heart than my out-of-practice right hand (typing is a lot easier than the old-fashioned method). The answers, not all bad, weren't news. Not by a long shot. I'm glad I did it--I needed to do it--and it helped me understand the holidays that followed. I learned and grew. But Elul wasn't much fun, most of the time.

Now I need to remind myself that writing really IS fun (especially since I'm taking another writing workshop that begins next week).

Rosh Hashanah already feels like it took place in some distant era, but it was just two weeks ago. Once again we were back at the Very Large and Impressively Ornate Former Christian Scientist Church, where I helped lead on the first day. I was last there in 2003, sitting in the balcony with the choir listening to a rabbinic student sing morning blessings with perfect calm and joy, and going home later to try and duplicate the melody and wonder idly what it might feel like to stand in that spot. And on the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year, I got my chance.

(Continued here.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

842. Update

Rosh Hashanah was an excellent, exhausting whirlwind, and I will fill in the details when I finish catching my breath. If I ever write a book about this journey, it will be called "Learning How To Sing While Standing Naked In Front of 1,000 People." (Figuratively, of course. But that's what it felt like, in the best possible way.) Meanwhile, I have a sore throat. It conveniently waited until 9AM Monday to strike, and then did so with a vengeance. Not panicking yet; neither coughing nor sneezing, still able to sing, gargling with warm salt water every hour, and I plan to go to the doctor today. And there are seven more days left before YK. Still, oy.

So back to real life, and trying to cram in all the accounting of the soul stuff that I didn't get to last week (or the week before, or the week before.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

841. Happy birthday, 5770!

And once again my life got in the way of my life, and all those posts I planned for the week will remain temporarily unwritten. Time to finish getting ready, a process begun 29 days ago. This time I really did think, every day, about the marks I've missed this past year--not easy. More to come before Yom Kippur about what I learned, or didn't. Meanwhile, I will be singing both mornings of Rosh Hashanah at large, beautiful churches temporarily acting as synagogues, and can think of no better places in which to welcome the new year. Shanah Tovah!

Friday, September 11, 2009

840. Eight Years

I sat down this morning to finish another post, and realized that today was a day to share different memories. This op-ed in the NY Times says it best:

After the Storms, an Island of Calm — and Resilience

An excerpt:

This week, in fact, brings another anniversary, one that took place 400 years ago and underscores the manifold ways in which Manhattan renews itself.

In September 1609, the beach near the tip of the island was surrounded by thickly wooded hills. Passenger pigeons flew overhead; porpoises hunted in the harbor. Around 600 Native Americans lived on the island. And they were the ones who, on Sept. 12, must have watched as a European, Henry Hudson, guided his small wooden ship into the Muhheakantuck (later Hudson’s) River, cleaving the waters with the narrow prow of history that would one day create New York City in its wake. ...

... There is a process in ecology called succession — the orderly advance of ecosystems from one state to another. There are moments of terror and unfathomable destruction, and then stability returns and life takes hold again, often with a firmer grip. This applies, of course, both to nature and to human society. As Jane Jacobs wrote, “Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration.” Resilience is a hallmark of any successful system, whether for a forest, a wetland or a city.

Today, we honor the memory of all that was lost and sacrificed on 9/11. But in thinking back 400 years, in imagining the Lower Manhattan of the distant past, we can join that memory to another realization: that we, and the world we live in, have a remarkable capacity to recover and renew.


Eight years. The number eight in Judaism signifies beginnings, promises: the covenant of brit milah on the eighth day of life, the day after the seventh day of rest, when we begin the week anew. May this eighth year continue to mark the renewal of life and peace for this city, these people, and the community of all of us on the earth.

(Here's a post I wrote three years ago about the events of my life on 9/11/01.)

Monday, September 07, 2009

839. Ceiling

The ceiling of the sanctuary of my synagogue was rebuilt many years after the rest of the building in a different—but completely complementary—architectural style. The ark and walls are bedecked with intricate designs of ribbons and rimonim in rich jewel tones; the ceiling, however, is a sculpted maze of brass tubes suspended magically below a deep blue firmament, like the infrastructure of a crystal snowflake as interpreted by Sol Lewitt. It's wonderful to contemplate during prayer and try to imagine what lies beyond those darkest of crevices. This Friday night, staring upward as I sang, I happened to notice the bright lights that dot every few angled quadrants, illuminating their neighboring cities of tubes but still allowing most of the space beyond and above to remain shrouded in mystery.

The ceiling, this week, seemed like a great metaphor for life in general, or at least my life. There's an overall, beautiful pattern—this much is obvious. But sometimes it seems so vast an enterprise that most of the design is too far away to be seen. Then, suddenly, in moments of quiet, prayer, joy, or sadness, or even at the most mundane of times, a little of the secret is lit, making you want to look even harder to understand what lies beyond the darker parts.


On an unrelated note, thank you to this Swedish site for linking to my post from a few years ago about Tashlikh. I'm glad that the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls out on Shabbat this year, which means that Tashlikh won't happen until the second—and I won't be tempted to hang out at the river and make the grave error, once again, of talking too much.

838. Coming and going

This past Shabbat I chanted the fun part of Ki Tavo, the section with all the curses (although they're not quite as gruesome, or long, as these curses). I'd read it a few times before—it shows up in two of the three triennial cycles—but never quite memorized the arrangement of "arurs" ("cursed be..."), the word that begins almost every pasuk in the section. Maybe the Masoretes were trying to weed out the cursed from the blessed by assigning no discernible pattern of trop to those repeated words. I sort of figured out a plan, but by Shabbat mnemonics such as "revi'a = lying with your sister" were still perched only tentatively in my short-term memory.

So I was a nervous. (I'm always nervous when I read. But this time, a little more.) My blood pressure was not lowered by the knowledge that this aliyah is usually given to to a rabbi, so as not to burden any congregant with with such unpleasant suggestions. (I've also read that it's occasionally given to the reader, logic being that she's already up there. Thankfully, I was not asked to take it.) As much as I love my rabbis, I was not looking forward to one of them staring over my shoulder as I read. This time, however, it was given to the cantor, and after few verses I realized that if anyone know the shortcomings of my voice and abilities, it was he—so who better to suffer them up close. I might as well just chill. All went well, aside from the strangled sound I made on a high note because I forgot to breathe. All that remained for me to chant were the 7th and maftir aliyot, a mere three verses. I could relax.

But not entirely. A VIP—a Very VIP—was called up for the 7th aliyah. I was so happy to be done with the curses that I just ignored that fact that two rabbis, the cantor, and a Big Shot Very VIP were breathing down my neck. And at the last line, they all started to laugh. I had no idea why, but joined in; it felt good.

When I got back home I took another look at the end of that aliyah (Deut. 28:6), and understood why:

Barukh atah bevo'ekha uvarukh atah betsetekha.
Blessed will you be when you come and blessed when you go

which is exactly what was happening. Talk about the Torah as a mirror of life; another very good lesson for Elul.

Friday, September 04, 2009

837. It's really Elul, part 2

(Continued from here.)

So, as I was saying:

"You can wear my tallit," said the cantor as he stood by the door. I saw the little blue bag on the table and unzipped it gingerly; wearing someone else's tallit seemed like a major invasion of personal space. What if I sweated on it? I could offer to take it to the dry cleaner after Shabbat. But these were special circumstances, and perhaps some of his vocal prowess had soaked into the fibers and would leap helpfully to my shoulder, assuming I could figure out how to wear the thing. It was enormous. The rabbi came over and carefully folded the front corners, and I once again felt like a baby bird about to be pushed from a nest. But this time I had really big wings.

My heart rate had jumped about 500%, to the extent that I was afraid a ventricle or two would pop out. "Take a deep breath," someone said. "I'll play quiet, calm, music," added the cantor, smiling, right before he opened the door.

We walked out front, the music started, I looked into few hundred expectant, calm faces, and suddenly I felt like I had been here all along. We seemed to occupy a little force-field of prayer, a zone of kavannah bookended by the rabbi and cantor with me lucky enough to step inside. Some of the tunes were a surprise (under usual circumstances, I find out a few of them five minutes before the service), but I caught on quickly. The tallit kept falling off my shoulders, which was just fine; the big, white drape hid my leggings and not-quite sweatshirt from view. Not that anyone but me was bothered by my causal attire.

The next day I caught up with the exercises, brilliant, bite-sized installments of spiritual preparation, in the great 60 Days book. Thursday's focus had been on taking initiaitive: Do something beautiful, and trust that God will respond. Elul is the month in which to voice love previously unexpressed, step into new light. It's an area where I need help; I tend to wait for things to happen, and procrastinate as long as possible before dealing with the results. I am rarely the one to initiate change. So when I re-read this page on Shabbat, I was confused. Leading on Friday night happened without any action on my part; what had I done to merit this reward? Why take initiative when beautiful things can, and do, happen on their own? I was there, is all, and the gifts I received were amazing.

But maybe that's the answer. I showed up--I made myself available, and open. Simply being present, both physically and emotionally, is a conscious choice. I may think life is just happening, but I'm opening the door so that it can.

Wishing everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat (where the only initiative you have to take is to decide if you want another slice of babka).

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

837. It's really Elul, part 1

So at about 6:59:30PM last Friday I was minding my proverbial business, sitting towards the end of a row with friends waiting for 7PM services to start. The sanctuary was almost filled, even the balcony, this being the week when everyone returned from summer vacation to gear up for the resumption of real life. I was beginning to feel the tension in my shoulders release, Shabbat starting to work its way into my veins like a slowly dripping IV of calm.

Then I looked to my left and, as if dropped from the sky, there was the cantor, kneeling in the aisle. Before I could think, how strange, he smiled and said,

"Do you want to lead?"

I opened my mouth to respond, but my brain wasn't fast enough; nothing came out. All I could manage was, "Now?" He gestured for me to go up front, and I put my bag on my seat and asked my friends to watch it. I think I did this because it seemed like a usual sort of response, and everything else about this moment defied reason. I bolted into the robing room behind the bima, and stood there for a moment with no idea what to do.

The other leader had a sudden toothache, and couldn't make it. Certainly any of our rabbis can lead services alone, but that's not our minhag. There are generally two people at the bima, trading off the singing of each prayer between them and, if we're lucky, the cantor at the keyboard.

"You don't have to do it if you don't want to!" said the rabbi as I was busy flipping though the siddur to remember where we started. "Page 252," she added helpfully, reminding me that I'd heard this page number announced ever Friday evening for the past ten years. But I'm here already, I can't leave! I thought. Then I remembered I hadn't vocalized at all that day, and my siddur with the little tabs on the pages and pencilled notes to remember to breathe and keep my shoulders up was at home on the shelf.

(Continued here.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

836. It's in our DNA

Guilt: we're wired for it. Proof the Yom Kippur is necessary as a psychologically restorative event:

Guilt and Atonement on the Path to Adulthood

An excerpt:

"Guilt in its many varieties — Puritan, Catholic, Jewish, etc. — has often gotten a bad rap, but psychologists keep finding evidence of its usefulness. Too little guilt clearly has a downside — most obviously in sociopaths who feel no remorse, but also in kindergartners who smack other children and snatch their toys. Children typically start to feel guilt in their second year of life, says Grazyna Kochanska, who has been tracking children’s development for two decades in her laboratory at the University of Iowa. Some children’s temperament makes them prone to guilt, she said, and some become more guilt-prone thanks to parents and other early influences.

"... She recommends focusing not just on the bad deed, but more important, on how to make amends. “Both children and adults can be surprisingly clueless about whether and how to make things right,” Dr. Tangney said. “Little kids are overwhelmed by the spilled mess of milk on the floor. Parents can teach and support them to say ‘I’m sorry’ and to clean it up, maybe leaving the kitchen a little cleaner than it was before.”

So, lest we get tired of all that repetitive breast-beading during the Vidui, we're now backed by science. It really will help make us feel better.

Monday, August 24, 2009

835. Getting Ready

Elul High Holy Day preparation, this time around, is a bit different for me than in the past. Although I'm the least seasoned leader of the bunch, it's still the sixth year I've led Shaharit (amazing)—none of us need very many rehearsals. One of the service locations is different than last year—but we sang there a long time ago, me from the first row of the balcony in the choir as we hovered above the rabbis on the stage directly below. As Kohelet observed, there's nothing new under the sun. My first rehearsal is the week before Rosh Hashanah. Until then, unlike those summers when I began humming Uvekhen in July, getting ready is up to me and me alone.

This is the way it should be. I think I've relied too much on circumstance to get in an Elul frame of mind; motivation should come from within. And this year, lacking preamble, it's either be ready or be shocked by the sudden arrival of the holiday, and miss the whole point. So I finally got my act together and bought the 60 Days book, by the same wonderful rabbi who wrote the daily Omer counting manual that helped me feel like a slightly different person at the end of those 49 days for the first time ever this year. 60 Days suggests little bits of kavannah, spiritual intention, and exercises and ideas for action for each day of this month and the event-filled one to follow—not a lot of work, but just enough to get a person thinking. (Already I feel guilty, not a bad start.) I may be singing the same melody as in 5768, but want to make sure it's also a shir hadasha, a new song, as befits the birthday of the world.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

834. Marathon

Elul, to date, has been a marathon. Since last I wrote, I chanted Torah on Monday and again on Shabbat (featuring a whole new set of mistakes not revealed on Mon., but it went well just the same). The mother of a good friend passed away on Tues., and so I stood out in the 95 degree heat for many hours on Thurs. at the funeral. (Not complaining. Life and death do not pay attention to the availability of shade.) This morning, led minyan for the first time ever since everyone on the long list of usual leaders, plus a large number of rabbis, were all on vacation. Singing in front of a thousand people while standing next to a rabbi is a lot easier than leading the entire service for seventeen all by myself, complete with those short ending and beginning parts, which is why I never did it before. (And I'm still unable to read anything quickly in Hebrew without practicing for a bit, even after all these years, but have learned how to fake as needed.) The cantor, as always, judged my abilities better than I could. After a few moments of initial panic at the request, I realized he wouldn't have asked me if I were comfortable leading unless he knew I would be--and, after a couple of hours of cramming and singing along with his ethereal voice on a CD, I was. And I had fun, too.

Came home, collapsed on the sofa, did some work, and then led Minha at the shiva minyan for my friend's mother, Now I have a Sinai-sized mountain of work to finish over the next two days, but will sleep for a couple of hours first--and no doubt dream of many different kinds of nusah, just as I did last night.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

833. Hello, world

It's been awhile, I know.

My brain was on vacation. I didn't realize this was the case until until a few weeks passed and I found myself doing things I'd put off for years--cleaning out closets (I'm pretty organized, but it was time to throw out those cancelled checks to the gas co. from 1985), writing long-overdue thank-you notes, thinking about creating art the old-fashioned, way, with my hands and paint. I love to write, but it's OK to take a rest every once in awhile.

Then yesterday I chanted the same whopping, tongue, tongue-twisty section as three years ago, but without the added drama of the cantor stopping me before the maftir to tell me he had given me the wrong verses... no interruptions this time around. (A little unintended excitement, however, that only two of us knew about: the wife of my long-ago ex- came back for a visit and was given an aliyah when I read. We eyed each other in wary, cordial shock, and I didn't miss a beat.) Parashat Re'eh always feels like the last hurrah, summer almost over and the next thing about to happen. The d'var Torah was about preparing to prepare--Elul, the month that ushers in the High Holy Days, is half a week away--and it occurred to me that writing would be a good way to get ready for whatever that next thing may be. Something is always coming, it's true; the new year is just a marker in that stream. But a good and useful one.

I also got some news on Friday that started my blood circulating again. I will in fact be helping to lead for the holidays, three services instead of four, because we're at two venues instead of three, but no complaints. The prospect of a morning of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur without standing at the bima and singing Shaharit, after five years of doing so, had gotten me very depressed and holding my breath the same way I did for most of 2006 after losing my voice (feh, p'tooie, evil eye, begone) the year before. (And, yes, I now feel kind of silly for worrying.) The schedule is a feat of genius, spreadsheet gymnastics of fairness and sensitivity, all the laypeople who led in years past still doing the parts we love. I won't be leading Minha on Yom Kippur, at times the most spiritually intense part of the day for me--but I will gladly trade that for the experience of singing HaMelekh in a massive marvel of Gothic architecture while trying not to notice an 80-foot stained-glass window of Jesus and Mary. I was last in this place seven years ago, sitting in the front row of the balcony and marveling at the hazzanit's beautiful, honest voice, wondering what it would feel like to be in her shoes. Now I'll find out.

I think I'm finally ready to start to be ready.

Friday, July 10, 2009

832. Rhythm

I'm back inside after a morning of looking at what I posted earlier. I wonder how it would feel to live a life always surrounded by that kind of quiet. There were birds and motorboats in the distance, and an occasional car on the road behind the boathouse, but mostly I heard water—crests of silver-blue bumping into each other as they swayed like little mounds of windswept jelly, and the occasional splash of a gull. One lit on the railing that stretched the length of the short pier and struck a few poses (beak preening back; one leg planted and the other who knows where; and finally, head under wing) until she fell asleep in perfect balance on the thin wooden bar. I walked to the near edge of the pier, a respectful distance from the gull, and practiced my Torah portion for next Shabbat. It's a long one I first chanted three years ago; although I don't consciously remember it, the words and tune are still embedded somewhere in the recesses of a few brain cells, and came quickly once I began to review. I stood on the pier and sang quietly for about an hour, filling my lungs with air drenched in sunlight as the sounds of water kept rhythm.

831. What I'm looking at right now

I spent the morning on the deck of this boathouse right across the road from the bed and breakfast where we're staying.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

830. Greyhound bus

Here's a post I began exactly one year ago, written on the way back home from a weekend visiting the same friend with whom I'm hanging out this week on Cape Cod:


Written on the Greyhound bus coming back home from Boston:

There are many strange people in the world, and I think a disproportionate number of them travel by bus. (Maybe I'm one of that number, and the person in the row behind me is writing a post for her own blog.) In any case, I need to chronicle the woman in the front row, window seat, whose reflection I can see starting at the highway. Every few minutes she lifts up a big, heavy, professional-looking camera and takes a picture of the passing blur of a grassy median. Or maybe she's shooting the yellow-grey clouds above a landscape of trees as messy and sparse as the balding head of the man in the seat to my right. Or perhaps she's doing a study of the bus driver's elbow. I wonder what her seatmate is thinking, a dark-haired woman who stares resolutely forward. I would ask, if I were that seatmate. Some mysteries must be solved.

On the trip to Boston a few days ago, my neighbor was a very large woman who would occasionally cough as if trying to subdue a hurricane or uproot a primeval forest of phlegm. She spent much of the ride on the phone complaining to an unknown listener about her son or boyfriend, I couldn't figure out which, who never washed his clothes. I paid little attention to the volume of her voice, since all my concentration was focused on trying to huddle into a small ball and get as far away as possible from the germs, but the bus driver eventually turned around to announce that neither he nor those in any other row found the conversation interesting. She apologized, and for the rest of the trip I heard only whispered details of the state of the dirty underwear. But we did exchange a few pleasant words. She was visiting Boston for the first time in 20 years, to see her nephew (I hope he wasn't the one with poor hygiene). And right as we pulled out of Port Authority to leave New York, and the driver announced that our first stop was Newton, she turned to me and asked:

"Is that a state?"

Did she actually say, "Is it in a different state?" and maybe I mis-heard? Or perhaps she was from a foreign country and, despite perfecting an American accent, never had time to learn all fifty names?

"No, it's a town," I answered. We both then stared into space for the next hour, and I realized that I had only a vague idea of where we were going, as well. All stretches of highway look much the same between New York and Boston. Things change so fast in this world, I wouldn't put it past someone to slip in a new state when I wasn't looking and hadn't yet picked up the day's New York Times.

829. Engaging

It's so nice to do nothing. Although I'm not exactly thinking of nothing (the curse of wireless, unlike the days when I went to summer singing workshops and was completely without phone, TV, or newspapers for a week), sitting with my laptop on a chaise lounge in a Victorian-style living room is about a stress-free as one can get indoors, without meditating. (It's a little too chilly for the beach, unfortunately.) If I had lots of money, I'd come up to Marsh Cottage for a few weeks and write a book. I don't know what about, but it almost doesn't matter; this lovely space is made for that purpose.

I'm looking at my notes about blog posts to write when I have time, which is now, and see that they're not very cheery. (Hoping this vacation will help change that.) One reads:

"My cousin wanting to pray all the time—is that really Jewish?"

I have a dear ba'al teshuva cousin who recently posted on Facebook that she doesn't follow the news or popular culture and chooses instead to spend her free time (what little that remains after raising three small children) praying or reading psalms. I would never think of asking if she believes this is what God wants—but will post the rhetorical question here, for myself to ponder while watching ocean birds fly and smooth stones shimmer under the mirror surface of a pond. I don't think God can "want" as we define the word, but do believe our role in the universe is to act, and not just wish, ponder or praise. I love prayer, but life needs balance—just like the symmetry of creation, day and night, good and evil, work and vacation. Our lives are mostly spent at the midpoint of those poles but sometimes, if we're lucky, they tip in the good direction and we get to experience the most beautiful parts of what God created. I believe the likelihood of those moments is in proportion to how much we engage with the world. I understand that my cousin does this in many different ways as part of her amazing role as a parent—but teaching her children, by example, about the world beyond their immediate community is just as important, and as Jewish.