Sunday, January 25, 2009

773. Minyan

I had a shiva minyan in my apartment last week. An incredible experience; I can scarcely find words. Being a participant and leader has been overwhelming, and having lived through many losses myself, I thought I had some appreciation of what it was like on the other side, but now I see that that I had no clue. There were a lot of people--30, 40? and my rabbis and the cantor--spilling out into the hallway, sitting on the floor, friends, people I knew by sight from services, people I barely knew whose minyanim I had led and wanted to show their support. I have never experienced such an outpouring of love from so many at once. I got the chance to speak about my brother, and in sharing that story--about a person my parents told me was bad, and so a story that seemed shameful for a long time--I understood in a new way how important he was in my life, and how much I'd miss him. I felt like he would live on just a little more now that others also carried some of his memory. And I felt, finally, worthy of mourning, which sounds ridiculous, but realized I was carrying around some strange set of equations in my head about time spent with a person while growing up = relative appropriateness of experiencing sadness.

I also gained a whole new perspective on the psychological brilliance of Jewish responses to death. I could almost feel my soul start to knit back together as each friend walked in (the door is left open, and it's OK to just appear and not be greeted, so the mourner doesn't have to go to that trouble), got me food (I wasn't supposed to lift a finger), listened as I spoke. I stood by myself, shaking, to say the Mourner's Kaddish, but this prayer can only be recited in a group of ten or more; the moment of grief is mine alone, and very lonely, but I am always accompanied. For those who lose children or parents and are navigating a land far stranger and more frightening than mine, I now understand much more clearly how these rituals sustain and keep them breathing when they might not want to. I wish I had been connected to a community when my parents died. In each case I sat shiva for a day at the home of relatives, took some mindless and wasted time off of work, and then resumed real life and pretended I was stoic. But afterward, and for quite some time, I had no idea what I was doing.

Yesterday I uncovered the mirrors and finished the last of the bagels and egg salad, and for the first time in a week was able to think about something beyond the immediate present. Death is a kind of perverse gift in that regard. It reminds us that we are still animals and that in order to survive grief, we need to put aside much of what makes us human--planning, aspiring, forgetting that life happens one breath at a time--and focus on living second by second, even when it seems that the pain of doing so is unbearable, even when time is like a dream.

772. HaMakom

My first thought: this is how the Israelites must have felt during the parting of the Red Sea. Or maybe just the ones in the back, after they saw that God really did come through as promised, and the walls of water would hold, and there was no safer place in the world than this narrow path between two pulsing, towering canyons.

On Friday evening during Kabbalat Shabbat, I sat downstairs with a Hevra Kadisha member who volunteers for the task of accompanying mourners as they walk into the sanctuary immediately following Lekha Dodi. We talked about everything and nothing for a half hour; I almost forgot that people were praying right above us. Then an usher came to tell us it was time, and we walked up the stairs and stood outside for a few minutes as everyone finished dancing and singing. ("Do you want to go back"? whispered the usher, concerned that I wasn't ready to witness such joy even from afar. But I was really happy to see happy people, although glad not to participate. This was the first time all week I had been able to hear music without cringing in pain.) The door opened, and I walked down the aisle to a seat up front as everyone stood and watched, and said

HaMakom yenahem ethem b'toch shar avay'lay Tzion v'Yerushalayim.
May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

HaMakom: "The Place." It seems to me that the translation should be more concrete than "Omnipresent"--an actual structure filled, rather than a Presence that fills. At that moment, as I walked in between walls of people, I knew that this room, together with everyone abiding within it, was God--the God of comfort, through everyone who waited, hugged, and fussed over me during that half hour, and my friends who had arranged to sit next to and in rows right behind me; and the God of my heritage, in those few seconds between the back of the sanctuary and my seat when I could almost hear an echo of this moment in all those other stories of exodus, pain, and redemption.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

771. Exhausting

Being sad is exhausting. I am sort of halfway sitting shiva; I can't afford to not work for a week, and without other mourners around it would feel hollow. But people, an awful lot of people, will be here for a few hours on Wednesday and I'll cover up the mirrors, put out a tray of cookies, and have a minyan. I never imagined such a thing would take place in my home. My parents, the likely candidates, have been gone for awhile, and my brother was supposed be like the other men on that side of the family and live forever. (My father, who drank and smoked and ate heaping plates of greasy food, wasn't sick a day in his life and died at 93. The house painter, I learned, made it to 97.)

Meanwhile, I hope I can concentrate a little between now and then. Being self-employed can suck at times like this. My clients are very understanding, but getting paid still requires that I actually finish their projects. And I really need to get paid.

The universe did oblige in a few ways. I'm sorry I missed doing my part for yesterday's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, but the holiday also meant I could take a day off along with the rest of the business world. I was also supposed to read Torah this coming Thursday and Shabbat. Oddly, I wasn't having much fun learning the portion; the process seemed more dutiful than usual. Then I got an email from the cantor last Wednesday wondering how far I'd gotten, because the tutor of the bar mitzvah boy wanted to read, too. But if I had learned it already, no problem--the other guy would be out of luck, not a big deal. Not once in the six years I've been chanting have I gotten such a request. I replied, early Thursday morning, that I knew most of it but would be fine with giving someone a chance who didn't get to read very often, and so wasn't as lucky as I.

Then I went to a diner for a quick breakfast, and got the phone call. I packed up my omelet, came home and cried, and sent another email: please do ask the tutor to take over. I think God knew in advance that I'd need a break.

I didn't go to services this past Shabbat, but davened alone at home, instead. It was really nice and peaceful. As much as I needed to be with friends, I also craved quiet and couldn't image hearing music, let alone singing it. Later today I'll drag myself to the gym for the first time in ages, in hopes that exercise will give me some strength to deal with the rest of the week. It should be a quiet one, beginning with great joy, which I pray will push this year into a different and better lane than the one it seems to be careening down.

Monday, January 19, 2009

770. Groundhog Day

From the minute I got off the plane and knew immediately which escalator to take to the baggage claim--I had a feeling in my bones of wrongness, the universe tilted off-axis, like those science fiction stories in which the hero wakes up in a new dimension where things look the same as before, but we lost WWII and it's all different. Groundhog Day without the good parts. The script didn't waver: a wrong turn in the dark as we headed back home, dining room table cleared off to await a big tray of cold cuts, carefully arranged tiny porcelain dogs in the breakfront. We got dressed the next morning, grabbed a cup of juice, and waited for an adult to say it was time. But it was only us in the house.

My brother was the last one: no more parents left, no aunts or uncles, just a bunch of old poker buddies and peroxided widows, and distant cousins telling me how much I looked like my mother. Like real grown-ups we had our own children, debt, divorce, pain, but were still the kids. "This is the beginning of the end," my sister-in-law had said a few years ago as we walked out of the cemetery after her sister's funeral. I stuttered with empty assurances, but knew she was right.

By late afternoon we made our way to the patio and shared memories of 70s TV and the genial Canadian uncle who painted all our homes. I was sad and happy at the same time, awed by the simple miracle of having family with whom to talk about nothing in particular. I wanted to stay with these people, strangers in many ways, who were trying so hard to make me forget that I usually expect to feel like a guest. This sense of belonging still comes as a surprise, like an unexpected balloon in a clear blue sky. I think both my parents lost so many loved ones that they came to feel safer out on the margins, but drew me there for company when I should have been way up front. It's taken me a long time to claim my spot, and it feels good.

A friend remarked that in my last post I sounded unnecessarily apologetic about my feelings. I hadn't meant this, but it's true. Yesterday did much to remind me that I need not believe my sadness is unwarranted because I wasn't as close to my brother as other people were. Sometimes it's more painful to lose a relationship still in formation, knowing the promise will never be fulfilled.

But despite the embrace of family, everything was wrong. The day should have remained filed away from a year and a half ago, to be dusted off in sad reminiscence some far-off future evening over a cup of hot chocolate. Instead, like a civil war reenactment but with ghosts instead of homemade uniforms, we wearily hit the same old marks. The air seemed to be tinged with dirty yellow like an old photo. All our eulogies and kisses were loving but surreal, melting away Dali-like after a second or two. We mostly sat in wordless shock and, unusual for my family, made no jokes to break the tension. (Well, except one. I couldn't imagine viewing the open casket without S. standing there to take my hand. But everyone else did so, including my niece and her new boyfriend. Afterwards her sister remarked that, considering his track record of boyfriend disapproval, this was probably the best way for him to meet her dad for the first time.)

The rabbi was a family friend, a great comfort--she knew my brother well, and her remarks were genuine and heartfelt. I sang Psalm 23 and El Maleh, which I hope brought a little consolation to my family. I tried to very hard to sing with my whole soul, since I had only half a voice, and felt my father's presence, after I said his name, telling me everything would be OK.

(I learned something very interesting about my father this weekend, as well. My last name is one of those cut in half and "Americanized" by some long-lost immigration official, which I always figured happened at the Canadian border when my father came here from Russia. But in fact the original name is on S.'s birth certificate, and S. was born in New Jersey. And the new name is on his younger brother's birth certificate. What happened during those five years that made my father want to sound less identifiably Jewish? Did he become a citizen, or was he trying to escape anti-Semitism? I'll never know.)

I offered a prayer as we waited to walk into the chapel after doing kriah (symbolic rending of garments represented by tearing a small piece of black ribbon): may we never, ever be here again.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

769. My brother (part 2)

(Continued from here.)

When I was 11, this imperfect but comfortable routine of Sunday visits came to a sudden halt. My parents decided to get divorced, a good thing--they loved me more than life itself, but couldn't stand each other. And something else happened at about the same time: my father stopped speaking to his sons. Maybe it had to do with money, or taking sides in the divorce, or other reasons I will fortunately never know. To my childhood understanding, it was far more than just silence: this was a hatred of truly biblical proportions. My mother broke off contact with them, as well (one of the few things my parents ever agreed upon). My brother S. was no longer a part of our lives, and I became even more confused about how to answer that old question. I learned to change the subject very quickly.

Even though my father was strong as an ox, he was still vulnerable to the usual illnesses of one's late 80s, which unfortunately began to strike just as my mother was dying of cancer. Big chunks of my 20s were spent in a blur, visiting them in various hospitals (once they ended up in the same place, which neither wanted the other to know) and hiring home health aides for my father, who fired every single one. (If it hadn't been so awful, it might have made a funny book some day.) Somewhat to my surprise, my father began to mellow with age. He resumed contact with his sons, and even got on a plane for the first time in his life to meet his youngest grandson.

As soon as S. and my sister-in-law realized that the burden of caring for my father had fallen on me, they stepped in and took over. I gladly ceded the responsibility, but was wary. They were supposed to be evil; how could I trust them? (I bumped into them at a shopping mall a few years earlier. I took one look and literally ran in the other direction, lest some of their badness rub off.) But S. persevered, inviting me to his house (the same little one next to the parking lot) for holiday meals, birthdays, Sunday dinners. It took a while to let my guard down; it seemed that liking him would be somehow disloyal to my parents' memories. But as I slowly became a part of their family--my family--and reconnected with my dear niece, and listened to new stories about my mother and father, I realized what brave thing S. had done. It's not easy to break a pattern of hatred, to reject old and familiar pain. (See also: conflict in the Middle East.)

We didn't have many conversations; he mostly left the talking to his wife. He was a big, strong man of few words, a Marine during the Korean war. He spent his life as a salesman, but could have been an artist; he was a wonderful photographer with a great eye, and took thousands of beautiful pictures of his many vacations around the world. (He and I went to the same arts high school, 30-something years apart.) He wasn't at all religious but had a deep love of Israel and Jewish life, and joined every Jewish cultural group and Yiddish chorus he could find. His wife, whom he had known since childhood, was the love of his life. They grew up in the same apartment building in the Bronx, although weren't really aware of each other until E. was 14 and her older sister said, hey--did you notice that cute guy who lives downstairs? She hadn't, but not for long; they married four years later.

In a few hours I'm getting on a plane to go to the funeral, where I will no doubt hear more stories and perhaps learn that some of the above, dredged out of my hazy memory, are inaccurate. S. died of cancer that he had chosen not to treat, and told his children about just a week earlier. He was ready to be with his wife once again.

Yesterday I realized, with some shock, that as a sister I'm supposed to sit shiva. I never imagined doing such a thing; I figured all the important people in my life had already died, so I was off the hook. At first the prospect seemed hypocritical: we were strangers in so many ways, and I didn't want my community to believe we were close or that I was in agonizing grief. I am very sad and upset--his death is yet another tie broken to my parents' lives, and to my own past--and he is my brother, my blood, a big loss no matter how you slice it. But I am not experiencing the unbearable pain of missing someone who was part of my daily life. After some thought, however, I decided that it was really important to mark the moment in a Jewish way, and accept the comfort of my friends and community. The cycle of Jewish mourning is a brilliant invention, and I will be in better shape if I observe it even a little bit. I can't afford to take any time off work (which will feel a little strange, since some of my work is for my synagogue), but will have a shiva minyan one evening where I can be publicly honest about my doubts, share the stories I do have (even if they don't match the heartwarming, almost saintly tone of most of the minyanim I've attended) and gain strength from the presence of friends. I'm still trying to decide if I want to take on the responsibility of saying Mourner's Kaddish for a month.

What a strange thing, life and death.

Friday, January 16, 2009

768. My brother (part 1)

My brother died yesterday morning.

What a a strange sentence to write, starting with the word "brother." For much of my life, I tried to ignore the fact that I had one of these--two, actually. S. was my half brother, and more than 30 years older. I always hesitated when asked that most basic of questions: did I have siblings, or was I an only child? It took forever to explain why the answer was yes to both: see, my father was married before he met my mother and had two sons, and my mother was much younger than my father, and I have nieces and a nephew older than me, and... By this point eyes glazed over, and people looked at me like I was from Mars. Today, with so many varieties of non-traditionally-configured families, such answers are often a source of pride in following an unconventional path. When I was kid, though, it was embarrassing to be so different from the norm.

My answer was further complicated by the eventual wish of all parties involved to forget that those brothers were part of the family. When I was very little, we would get in the '67 Chevy every Sunday afternoon and drive a few miles to visit S. and family, who lived in a narrow cookie-cutter home with a finished basement and postage-stamp-sized yard, right next door to a cavernous mall parking lot. There we imitated a sit-com: my mother and sister-in-law would retreat to the kitchen while S., my father, and a bunch of men with beer bellies broke out the cards, schnapps, and cigars and I went downstairs to marvel at my nephew's big tank of tropical fish, play with their Schnauzer, D.J. (named after the Dow Jones Industrial average; my brother must have had a good year in the stock market), and hang out with my baby niece, the happiest person on earth. Just being near her made me want to hug everyone; it didn't seem possible that she could be related to the dour adults upstairs.

Still, I always felt a little awkward, as if they weren't my real family. I never quite fit in. Years later my mother gently explained that my niece and nephew were jealous that my father now lavished most of his attention on me instead of his grandchildren, which was true. She didn't say that everyone thought he was nuts for having a child so late in life, but I knew that was also true.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

767. Steam (part 2 )

And the rest of the essay (continued from here):

The cantor's phone call inaugurated a summer that evoked the old Reagan campaign commercial: it was always morning in my apartment. Day and night, hour after hour, I practiced Shaharit from a pile of CDs and tried to crack myself open. And when I finally stood in front of the congregation that September and did my best fake cantor impression, we volleyed music back and forth just like the times I chanted Torah. I let the sensation soak into my pores and spent the following year wringing out little bits to keep me company whenever I needed a boost of spirit.

The Days of Awe rolled around once again, along with too much hubris. Maybe I sounded a little like a cantor, but certainly could not match the stamina of one. As I tried in vain that morning to coat my throat with steam and reclaim a voice to share, I wondered how it would feel to let down a thousand people. I would have to find a new synagogue, or religion. I finally eked out a few notes at the bottom of my range and kept humming all the way to the sanctuary, afraid to stop and lose my tentative grip on sound. "I can't speak, but I can sing almost everything," I croaked to the rabbi the second he walked in.

"Hello," he answered. "Don't worry. It will be fine!"

"But... I can't sing," I said.

"Just tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it," he said, calmly folding his tallit over his shoulder.

I thought he was nuts. I was about to kill the holiday in front of an innocent congregation; he should have yelled, or at least wagged a finger. Another rabbi walked over, a young intern I barely knew. She took my hands in hers.

"Breathe," she said. "Look for me in the first row. It'll be fine!'

With that they walked out to the front of the cavernous sanctuary, pushing me to go first like a fledgling from a nest. I opened my mouth, and prepared to die. I listened for footsteps of a horrified stampede through the back doors. But all I heard was a strangled whisper.

This time my sound did not bounce back, but sank like a dead limb in a shallow pool. Whenever it went completely under, the rabbi sang my part. I no longer imagined God filling the gaps between my words; there was only vapor, tenuous and vacant. I looked up from the prayer book, wanting to capture one final snapshot in my mind's eye of this marvelous point of view before retreating forever to the back row.

Instead I saw the young rabbi sitting front and center, as promised. Her face was open and peaceful, lit with a smile, her eyes steady and solid with trust. Her gaze was like a rock I could latch onto and begin to scale, knowing my foot wouldn't slip. With each step I took a deeper breath, and was able to make a little more sound. I still wasn't really singing, but noticed that everyone else was. They beckoned me to join, and held me up and kept me safe as their voices washed over mine.

766. Steam (part 1)

Here's part 1 of an essay I wrote for my writing class (still needs a lttle editing, but close to being finished), about that awful (well, not really) Rosh Hashanah a few years ago:


If you breathe in enough steam, after awhile your lungs start to feel like an open wound. I stood under the shower for half an hour gulping in the prickly air, and then moved to the bedroom where I draped a towel over the humidifier, and stuck my head inside. I emerged a few minutes later coated in newer, hotter sweat, and crawled to the piano. I played a tentative A above middle C, and opened my mouth.


It was 7AM, two hours since I awoke this second day of Rosh Hashanah and discovered my throat was swollen shut. The night before, as I lay in bed in awe of my superhuman ability to sing all morning and still be able talk with friends for hours afterwards, I wondered why I ever doubted my competence as a fake cantor. Singing had been a hobby since I was a kid, but always in large choirs or bouncy 
a cappella groups. I loved it, everything from the sounds of chords weaving filigrees out of thin air to the magnetic touch of the tips of our shoulders as we stood close and breathed as one. But I wasn't a very good actor; I had a hard time pretending that I understood why Gershwin loved London town or Monteverdi, God. Nor did I want to touch the scary parts that required an open heart to transform pretty notes into emotionally authentic music. Hiding in a choir was like a contact high, imbibing the honesty of others when I was too chicken to get naked and find my own.

But sometimes life pushes you out of the back row. One day, just for fun, I decided to take a Torah chanting class; the next, more or less, the cantor was the phone asking if I could volunteer to help lead Shaharit, the morning service, at High Holy Day services. I laughed louder than Sarah when God suggested she'd have a baby at 90. On my scale of improbable pursuits, this ranked just under becoming an Olympic athlete, and above raider of the lost Ark. But I said yes, because I had made an amazing discovery after many Shabbat mornings hunched nervously over a Torah scroll in the company of no voice but my own: it was safe. There were gabbais at my left and right following each syllable, ready to rescue me if I fell. And sometimes I swore I could hear a big, inflated beach ball of sound ricocheting between me and the last row, as the people listening seemed to catch my notes and throw them right back.

I remembered an old joke about a boy flipping madly through the pages of a book. "What's up?" asked his friend. "I have a date tonight, but this is useless!" said the boy, and showed him the front cover. "Silly!" laughed his friend. "That's just volume 9 of the encyclopedia: HOW to KISS." Sitting in a synagogue had been my own volume 9, HOW to PRAY. Everyone acted as if they understood, but I read the words and nothing happened. Was it like pornography, I'd know it when I saw it? I couldn't just latch onto someone else's kavannah like I did in a choir. But when I chanted Torah or sang from a siddur, when I exhaled and the story came out—my story—and the congregation listened, something new transpired. Like a circuit completed, the words, once heard, lit up like fire. This was praying, I realized, sighs and love and hope in the form of shared breath and sound, naked, addictive--and never lonely. And I think the glue filling the space between me and everyone else, the current between circuits, was God.

(Continued here.)

765. Three minyans (part 1)

I led a shiva minyan last Sunday night, and another the week before (as a last-minute replacement after the scheduled leader got sick). I hadn't led one of these since the beginning of the summer.

Each minyan was very different from the others but they were all, in a way, more powerful experiences even than helping lead on Yom Kippur. After other services, even the sad, serious ones, I've felt a kind of elation, an electric jolt of joy at what I was able to do and the energy created and share in that moment. But after a shiva minyan I feel a deep peace, as if the act re-boots me, dials me back to zero. Initially I figured this was the calm of self-confidence. There's no rabbi to run things; I'm in charge and have to set the tone, judge the mood of the room, decide on the spot whether or not to give a little d'var Torah, pick a song to sing at the end. I did get some training about how to do this, and attended many minaynim before I became a leader--but there's an element of improvisation. I walk into a strange home quite aware that I hold tools to help heal or harm someone's vulnerable, raw soul. I wonder why in the world I have any right to be there at all; it's empowering, and also overwhelming. I am awe of how rabbis live so often in this twilight world of other people's grief. A half hour every few months is enough to wring me to pieces.

Or perhaps my feeling of peace, afterwards, is gratitude--that I am not the one with a loss. Been there, done that, but I never really got to complete the ritual. I sat shiva after my parents' deaths, but was not Jewishly involved at the time; the act was truncated and I had no community around me to underscore its meaning. Every shiva minyan I attend is in their memory, and in gratitude that the pain was long ago. Sometimes I leave the minyan so bursting with unspoken thanks, and not sure why, that I just want to walk the length of Manhattan and hug everyone I bump into before I get back home.

(Continued here.)

764. Wishes

A little belated, but it's still January, right? (Certainly an improvement over a few years ago, when I sent out my "Happy first quarter of the year" wishes in March.) I send out New Year's cards mainly to remind my business contacts that I'm still here, and also catch up with the friends I was too busy to greet at the beginning of that other year back in September. This time around it was easy to pick something about which I was happy and hopeful. I took the photo on election day eve, and the text is by Willa Cather:

"The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still—and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world."

Sunday, January 04, 2009

764. Smaller than life

Just fifteen more days. Some brilliant words from Frank Rich's op-ed column in today's New York Times:

"We like our failed presidents to be Shakespearean, or at least large enough to inspire Oscar-worthy performances from magnificent tragedians like Frank Langella. So here, too, George W. Bush has let us down. Even the banality of evil is too grandiose a concept for 43. He is not a memorable villain so much as a sometimes affable second banana whom Josh Brolin and Will Ferrell can nail without breaking a sweat. He’s the reckless Yalie Tom Buchanan, not Gatsby. He is smaller than life."

--"A President Forgotten but Not Gone"

763. The Dream of the Third Cat

I sometimes have a strange, recurring dream in which I own a third cat (in non-dream reality, I have two). This cat is tortoiseshell, small, and although I have a vague memory that I saw him once or twice over the years, I'm not certain I believe myself. Until once day there he is, eating out of the bowl like business as usual. I'm distressed--how could he have hidden in my little apartment all this time? How did he survive--who fed him, where did he sleep? And how lonely he must have been, concealed by the shadows for so long. But he looks happy, confident, and not at all abused, and I am suddenly paralyzed with guilt--I should have noticed, remembered he was my responsibility. I am a horrible person. I rush over to pick him up, but he scurries away.

I thought of this dream the other week during Parashat Miketz, as we read about Joseph's interpretation of visions of fat and skinny cows. I admire Joseph's self-confidence; no matter if it was a ruse to gain Pharaoh's favor and stay alive. I don't know what midrash says about this, but it seems that Joseph didn't miss a beat:

(41:24) [Pharaoh is talking:] And the thin ears swallowed the seven healthy ears. I have told my magicians, but none has an explanation for me." (25) And Joseph said to Pharaoh, "Pharaoh's dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do.

Had Joseph said, "Well, let me think a minute. Hmm, maybe God means this...", would Pharaoh have agreed so quickly? Did Joseph really hear that interpretation directly from God's mouth? Who knows, but his conviction persuades Pharaoh to give him the benefit of the doubt. Can I--or God, or any seer or shrink--interpret my dream of the third cat with the same certainty? Not likely, which is fitting, because I think it's a dream about doubt--in myself, my perception of the world, whether I am doing enough on all sorts of levels.

In my dream the third cat is like Joseph, scrappy, strong, and assured, but I look at him and see only questions. In this time of great pain in the world, and of my own confusion about this new war, whose confident words do I believe? Is anyone really right or wrong, and how do I express this in a way that honors my love of Israel? I need to learn from this dream, and Joseph, to not be paralyzed by my own doubts and fears.

At services this Shabbat, the rabbi spoke about God's promise to Jacob in Parashat Vayigash:

(46:2) God called to Israel in a vision by night: "Jacob! Jacob!" He answered, "Here." (3) And He said, "I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. (4) I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes."

Why does God choose to call him "Jacob" at this moment rather than his new name of Israel, wonders Ramban? He called him Jacob in order to hint that now he will not contend with God and men and prevail [the reasoning used when his name was changed to "God-wrestler"], but he will be in a house of bondage until He will also bring him up again, since from this moment, the exile begins with him. Jacob is now in a seven skinny cow part of his life, so to speak, and his name must reflect this. But God assures him that he will never be alone; God will be his constant companion. I think this is the real lesson of my dream, as well. And if I am lucky and strong, the third cat is me during these skinny times.

Friday, January 02, 2009

762. Christmas music

Not the usual subject of this blog, but I've been seething about something for a few weeks and need to vent. As a choral singer since childhood, I've performed a lot of Christmas music. (NPR recently ran a BBC feature about a British survey of conductors asked to rate their favorite carols. The results were scholarly and geeky--and I knew most of them. In Dulci Jubilo, anyone?) I've sung everything from "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" to "A Spotless Rose" at venues ranging from big, fancy churches to the late, great World Trade Center. Most of this music is really beautiful, especially when performed from a nice arrangement.

But in New York City, Christmas music is piped into every commercial establishment beginning the second after Thanksgiving--and generally not the nicest of arrangements. We get, instead, the over-orchestrated, inappropriately pop-tinged versions, with country singers drawling "pa rum pum pum pum" like they're trying to drive away their cheating lovers rather than beat a gentle drum. In any case, not even the best compositions can withstand constant, relentless repetition. Sometimes I wonder if subliminal messages compelling us to shop are embedded in the music, designed to burrow into our brains after all else has been destroyed by the hundredth hearing of "Carol of the Bells."

"CotB" disappoints me the most. It's one of the first carols I ever learned, during the year I was in my 7th grade choir. (I left choir in 8th grade because I wanted to take art instead--one of many occasions when the New York City public schools forced me to choose between the two. But I was already addicted to the smell of greasepaint, so joined backstage band crew instead. There I learned how to open curtains, turn on stage lights, and smoke cigarettes. Only once, really. I soon acknowledged that backstage was too cool for me, and stuck with art class.) The version of "Carol of the Bells" that we sang in 7th grade was light and quick, like snow falling, the song's minor key reminding me of a twilight evening full of anticipation.

A few weeks ago I went into my local Hot and Crusty deli (which I love despite a most unappealing sign on the door: "Hot and Crusty bathrooms for patrons only"). I recognized the first strains of "Carol of the Bells," and prepared for some feathery nostalgia. Instead, I heard a string section fight with loud, portentous bells that reminded me of the theme from "The Exorcist." It was really scary and made me think that a big beast was arriving rather than a little baby. I couldn't get out of there fast enough, stumbling over an impenetrable phalanx of French-Canadian Christmas tree vendors lining the curb, but managing to make it home in one piece. (Who buys all those trees, anyway? Especially on the Upper West Side?)

I don't mean to sound like a scrooge. I just yearn for the good old days before all of December turned into a bad orgy of sound. On that note, Shabbt Shalom!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

761. Happy New (secular) Year!

Happy New Year! Let's see, what have I done all these weeks instead of blogging:

• Finished a crushing amount of work.
• Realized there was very little work forthcoming to take its place, as the crappy economy begins to affect those of us at the end of the food chain (designers are the first to be cut out of everyone's budget).
• Built a new website for my business in hopes that something new and spiffy will help attract customers. "If you build it, they will come."
• Discovered that the new website screwed up my email. Got upset. Awaiting answers tomorrow, when everyone (I hope) goes back to work.
• Bought a great new computer that I really need but can't quite afford, although it will surely make all the work I don't yet have go much more smoothly.
• Read Torah a bunch of times.
• Led a shiva minyan, with another to come on Monday.
• Planned to go to a great New Year's Eve party, and two on New Year's Day. (I am usually not much of a party animal, but I really like this holiday. As cool is it was to toast 2007 from a Tel Aviv beach, it felt strange that few people were celebrating along with us crazy Americans.)
• Instead, caught a stomach virus and spent New Year's alternating between the sofa and... well, you know. Woke up at 12:42AM to discover I had missed everything. I think this is the first Jan. 1 of my adult life I didn't spend in the company of festive people. Watched the ball dropping on YouTube, instead. I am grateful that YouTube exists to help those of us who need to reconnect with humanity every once in a while.
• Was deeply distressed and confused about Israel. Tried to figure out what I felt. Did not yet succeed.
• Was ashamed, as well. Tried to understand why people act this way. Did not succeed.
• Noted that Hanukkah began this year on the darkest day. Hoped this was a portent of more light reaching us all in the near future.

I hope to elaborate very soon on some of the above. Meanwhile, wishing everyone a happy, healthy and peaceful 2009. Wait, strike the happy and healthy--they can wait--make that a triple measure of the peaceful, for now.