Friday, February 27, 2009

790. Fear of Twitter Torah

Last night I had a very strange dream. I was on the subway, the "U" train (there is no such line) with two close friends, en route from the far reaches of Brooklyn (i.e., terra incognita ). We were engaged in a heated discussion about Twitter--is it helpful, or an insidious waste of time? I was conflicted. In my dream, as in real life, I have a Twitter account I have yet to use--but about 30 people "follow" me. Why? I've never posted a word. Every once in awhile I look at the list and remember that Twitter could be a great business networking tool, and also keep me in touch with old friends. And to have any credibility as a Web-savvy designer, I should really get with the program. But I'm also afraid it will take over my life, and I'll turn into a Twitter addict and have no time to do any work, new or old.

So in the dream we needed to switch trains, my friends and I. We walked out onto the platform, but I was in the middle of a reverie about Twitter and Torah. Maybe we could create an online dialogue about the weekly parasha. This seemed a little sacrilegious, though. Was Torah appropriate to discuss in this medium? Would a limit of 140 characters hamper the depth of commentary? Shouldn't Torah be studied in person? These questions upset so much so that I didn't realize I had lost my friends and gotten on the wrong train, and was headed as far from Manhattan as humanly possible.

The train stopped. I jumped out, and began to run. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the streets filled with people shopping for Shabbat (i.e., Williamsburg, Crown Heights). Everyone was smiling and happy except me, until I saw signs in the distance for a train that would take me right home. I raced into the station and asked for directions. "Get in touch with your friends immediately!" said the token booth clerk. "They're very worried--they asked us to look for you!"

Sheepishly, I took out my phone and started to leave messages. But wait!--here was one of my rabbis, in hiking gear and looking as if he had just come back from an Arctic expedition. If anyone could parse the Twitter/Torah conundrum, it was he. I couldn't wait to ask.

But I woke up before learning the answer, and with more questions. Clearly I need to get over my fear of Twitter, but Torah shouldn't worry me. Any study of those words is a good thing, no matter where or when, and that knowledge helps us find our way in the wilderness, not lose it. So what am I afraid of?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

789. Sleek new URL

You can now get here by typing "" or "". I remain a happy client of Blogspot (and the old URL still works) but, I dunno, I figured I might as well grab the domain while I could. After all, Googling "chanting" turns up about 5,670,000 links (of which I am a proud #9).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

788. Beatles and trop

I've gotten into the habit of listening to Slacker Radio on my iPhone when I go to the gym (and not just because the name of the application makes me feel part of Generation Y, Z, or whatever comes next). Since I am neither cool nor hip, I set up just one channel: The Beatles, which also plays songs that sound like The Beatles. If I had to be marooned on a desert island, I would need no other cultural enrichment aside from the complete Beatles ouevre. (OK, plus Tanakh.) That I utter both words with the same breath indicates my admiration, once bordering on obsession, for the former. I hadn't paid much attention to The Beatles until my mother bought me their Red and Blue albums for my 15th birthday, long after they disbanded, and for years I basically listened to nothing else. Then I discovered Bach, and my aural landscape opened up. But nothing was ever the same.

(I have no idea how my mother knew I needed The Beatles. Her idea of pop music was "On Top of Spaghetti" by Tom Glazer. Anything else she deemed worthwhile to hear was by Mendelssohn or Prokofiev. But somehow she knew, and it changed my life.)

The Slacker Radio Beatles channel is heavy on early stuff, which is my favorite--British invasion, bouncy tunes in a major key. I'm a little embarrassed to admit how much I love this kind of music. I was a huge, secret Wham! fan. I could care less about the words, but really like the rhythmic major keyness of it all. It sounds like fresh air, or that energy you get after a good workout (maybe why it makes such good gym music). It's clean and uncomplicated, a good anitdote to life's mishegas.

The other day as I huffed and puffed on the ellipitcal while Herman's Hermit's blasted in my ears, I suddenly thought of another reason why I like to chant Torah. Ashkenazic trop is in a major key, with a steady, interesting, fast rhythm. It tells a complicated story, but melodies are simple and upbeat, even when singing about war or skin diseases. I'm less of a fan of minor key tropes (haftarah, Eikha), which reminds me of how I used to think all Jewish music was supposed to sound. Once I discovered this was not the case, I was able to enjoy prayer so much more. Maybe this is why The Beatles entered my life--to lead me to Torah.

Monday, February 23, 2009

787. Three minyans (part 2)

(Continued from here.)

Tonight I'm attending a shiva minyan for a longtime member of the community. I'm glad to be able to give back in this way as as show of gratitude for all who came to my house. And this seems as good a time as any to write more about those other three minyanim:

The minyan last summer was the first I led that happened on the evening of the funeral itself. (I'm not usually assigned those, or leading a minyan for the death of a young person; a rabbi generally handles the more charged situations. But everyone else was away or dealing with other emergencies.) I walked into the family's apartment and felt an immediate chill. Even after a few seconds I could tell that people didn't want to be there--not just the awkward pain of making small talk after tragedy, but a pervasive sense that all present hated everyone else in the room. I think non-verbal communication is transmitted more loudly when emotions are raw; I am not the most fluent reader of body language, but the message was clear. People stood around in small, conspiratorial clumps with arms crossed tightly over their chests, glancing furtively out of the corners of their eyes.

I found the son whose mother had died two days earlier at the age of 98. Usually the family at a minyan is glad to see me, even those who have no clue who I am or are unhappy one of the rabbis didn't come--they're still grateful that someone, anyone, showed up to help. But this man was still in shock. It's funny to think of the death of someone that old as "sudden," but she hadn't been sick--and was apparently known for clinging fiercely to life with little regard for others who stood in the way. He looked at me with confusion, and motioned for his daughter to come over.

I introduced myself once again. They didn't answer. I looked at the crowd. "It must feel good to have some much family here at a time like this," I offered.

And as soon as the words escaped my mouth, I realized it was the wrong thing to say. I should have followed my instincts about body language. Both daughter and father pursed their lips and folded their arms even tighter. Then, after a frozen moment or two, the daughter smiled, probably realizing that I was being made very, very uncomfortable. I could feel the ice begin to melt ever so slightly. They led me into the living room.

I announced who I was, and asked everyone to pick up a prayer book and join in. I noticed a small crowd flattened along the back wall of the adjoining dining room, as if attempting to merge with the wall itself and escape into the next apartment. I asked the father if he wanted to begin with Minha rather than just Ma'ariv (an option in case the family was more traditional). He looked at me like a deer in headlights, and called over his brother.

"What should we do?"

The brother raised his eyebrows and peered over his glasses. "Minha, of course." I waited for him to add that I was an idiot to think otherwise, but he kept his mouth shut.

We began the service. I called out the wrong page, and made a little joke of it. They laughed, and the ice melted some more. I realized I had to appear confident and in control, some sort of anchor within the of miasma of fear and sadness I could feel swirling around us. I thought about compassion when I sang, wanting my voice to help heal these people's pain.

We reached the part of the the service where everyone is invited to share a story about the deceased. I saw the cluster at the back of the dining room roll their eyes, and the room was suddenly quieter than my cousin J. at last week's bris ("I'm going to hold my breath--what if I cry and startle the mohel??"). My mind raced as the seconds ticked--do I say something? ("Well, why don't we just finish the service and you can talk later...") Then someone to my left spoke:

"She was a very interesting woman."

And the stories began, not the usual deluge of happy memories I've witnessed at other minyanim, but a slow, steady trickle of polite, carefully chosen words. I had a sense that the deceased was responsible for some of the people in this room not speaking to others in this room. She didn't seem to be very nice, but they already missed her a great deal. With each memory, I heard that they couldn't imagine a world without her presence, challenging as it had been.

The service ended, and I darted out as quickly as possible so everyone could finally cry.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

786. Foreign place

Yesterday I chanted for the first time in quite awhile, three aliyot and the haftarah for Shabbat Shekalim (in honor of which I wore dangly coin earrings, homage to the gabbai who coordinates his ties with the weekly parasha). It was the first Shabbat since the end of shloshim, so I didn't stand for Mourner's Kaddish. This felt strange, clandestine, as if I had escaped before my allotted time. But also a big relief; reality had resumed. Having an aliyah (traditional for the person who chants haftarah) was a like seal on that state, the honor acknowledgment that I was now ready to give of myself once again rather than only being able to take. I felt very strong when I sang, and tried to put as much power as possible out into the universe to make up for the emptiness that followed me around for many days. I felt cleansed afterwards, energized. Like the line I chanted, I remembered what it was like to be alone:

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
—Exodus 23:9

The daily world is a foreign place to inhabitants of the country of grief. We are isolated during communal prayer, baffled by simple things like joy. But we learn from the experience of being a stranger, and when the period of mourning is over can understand the importance of ritual in a whole new way in order to give support to other new, unwilling citizens.

Friday, February 20, 2009

785. The Yuval Ron Ensemble

Please listen to these folks:

The Yuval Ron Ensemble

They're amazing. I attended their concert of Moroccan and Andalusian music on Wednesday and was blown away. The ensemble, according to their bio, "includes Arabic, Jewish and Christian artists who unite the sacred music traditions of Judaism, Sufism and the Armenian Church into an unusual mystical, spiritual and inspiring musical celebration." I read this prior to the concert and thought, blah, blah, blah, how nice, interfaith cooperation, another pleasant pastiche that won't reflect the best of any individual tradition but instead trade intensity for accessibility. I've been to plenty of these, and support any attempts to break down walls. Musical quality, or lack thereof, is almost beside the point.

The Yuval Ron Ensemble did not fall into this category. They were astonishing on all levels, from technical skill (in no painting have I ever seen an array of colors equal to that created by woodwind player Yeghish Manukayan) to an ability to reach out and pretty much grab my soul from its moorings, and caress and twist it through sound and words. They looked completely at peace onstage; you could tell they genuinely liked one another, believed passionately in their message, and were driven to share it with all who listened. Najwa Gibran, the Arabic singer, has one of the most beautiful and strong voices I've ever heard--it swooped and whispered, demanded, cajoled and comforted, and helped weave art from what could have been, in the hands of less capable musicians, a generic Middle Eastern soup.

I just downloaded one of their CDs, and can't wait to recreate some of Wednesday evening here in my living room.

784. Bank teller

I am once again chanting on Purim. The chanting part has become easier over time, but the costume aspect is still a challenge. This year I have an idea that involves a wig, safety pins, glitter, and a bank teller. It will, of course, remain a secret until I walk into that sanctuary filled with people in various states of dress and undress. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

783. Approach

"Images and names of God enable us to approach the divine, but they can't quite get us there. They keep us at a safe distance."
--Daniel Matt, Kaballah scholar

from the excellent memoir Surprised by God by Danya Ruttenberg, which I'm in the middle of reading. This line in particular jumped out after what I posted yesterday and that whole question of how to talk about God, a concept beyond words. The flavor of her doubt is different than mine, but the overall effect is similar--a dance of retreating and approaching until you reach a place you suspected was always present. And then, once you arrive, figuring out what to do there.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

782. Relationship

This past Shabbat, the rabbi spoke about one of the most valuable pieces of wisdom she learned in rabbinical school. We think of theology as a fixed understanding, an aha! moment of awareness that arrives and stays, she said. But relationships between our fellow humans grow and evolve over time, taught her professor; why, then, do we assume our relationship with God is any different? We're created in God's image, after all.

I agree. I believe in God but don't know what God is, never can and never will. But my perception of the mystery, how I tell the story to myself so it can become a source of support and comfort when I sense the presence in my life of this unexplainable thing, changes constantly. With each experience I find new words to help articulate the reason and meaning of awe, pain, joy. My language is barely up to the task; I am grateful to have Torah as a starting point. But even those words, slippery and illuminated through time and culture, rely upon our hearts to give them meaning.

The most valuable piece of wisdom I've received from a rabbi to date was offered as a comment in the Secret Rabbi Room right before I helped lead Shabbat morning service as practice for the High Holy Days. "Don't be nervous," said the rabbi. "You're about to talk to God!" "God is making me nervous," I laughed. But then I thought about that word "talk"--not sing at, not repeat words of, but have a conversation, God and I.

Prayer is very participatory at my synagogue, so I never chant without an awareness of ongoing feedback from the congregation. And often it seems as if God, like dew, gentle and caressing, fills the empty spaces between all those people, and offers an answer. My sound, and the trajectory and landscape of my prayer, responds in turn. In a way I think all learning and growth is a response to this voiceless, wordless talk with God, as the whole world changes along with every other living thing in it.

A few weeks ago I had a discussion with an old friend, a born-again Christian, about scripture, and I explained about Talmud and midrash, and how Jews regard all interpretations as valid. Some are more so than others, but few are rejected outright. But only God's words can be holy, she countered; isn't this heresy? The difference is that we see the very act of volleying those those words back and forth as holy, and one more manifestation of the divine. I love that Judaism can find God in doubt as well as faith. I think that our job, as people, is to take the confusion out of those sacred disagreements and, with help of the best of God's gifts to us, make them beautiful in some way.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

781. Aravot redux

Purim is coming up, which means we're ready to start the whole cycle of holidays once again--but since October I've been meaning to correct a mistake in a post written during the last Yamim Nora'im. George asked, in response to my comments about Hoshanah Rabbah:

You wrote "I look forward to beating those lulavim to a pulp." Surely you meant aravot?

I did indeed. Aravot, one of the arbah minim (four species) of greens we use on Sukkot as part of the ritual, are willow branches--and the only part of the lulav we try to decimate at the end of the Hoshana Rabbah service. As I walked home after this final closing of the gate I thought of the beginning of the process, when we try to disown our sins in a much gentler fashion. Back then, I watched them float softly away on a slow current during Tashlikh; now, whatever remains after days of reflection must be forcibly removed. Both acts serve the same purpose, but time is now short. I like the first way better. If we always lived in peace like a flowing river, I wonder, if violence were banished from our natures, would we need to beat away our transgressions at all?

780. To my baby cousin on the occasion of his bris

Welcome, Yosef Yitzchak

Heavy air
phones unanswered
one last click of a lock in a door.
But on this side, the smell of cupcakes with sprinkles
as a little girl in a princess costume
twirls in front of a superhero's cape
blue and white, draped over her father's shoulders
curling like a waterfall into a pool
when he sits on the sofa
and tries not to faint
as my new cousin floats on a pillow in his lap
and then screams louder than all the Jewish people.
A drop of sweet wine on the lips,
a small sigh, a nap
the air is light
and I open the door once again.

It is quite amazing that this bris coincided with the last day of shloshim for my brother, the traditional 30 days of mourning. I had erroneously calculated that shloshim ended on Tuesday, but received a call from a member of the Hevra Kadisha of my synagogue on Monday night asking how I was doing, and if they could be of any help now that this time had passed. How incredible to belong to a community that keeps track of such things better than I do.

Monday, February 16, 2009

779. Juxtaposition

I love choral music, although it's been awhile since I've listened to it for any length of time. But every once in a while I get a fierce urge to hear the order and exuberance of Bach, or the earthy joy of Brahms, and surf the web after I've exhausted my CD collection to find any new jewels. One recent journey led me to this Live365 streaming radio station:

Choral Treasures

(They also have a page here:

All manner of masses and motets old and new. Composers I've heard of, others obscure. A long time ago I felt a little like a traitor when I listened to church music: how dare I find it so spiritual when it wasn't my own tradition? But God is as present for me in these sounds as in the liturgy I hear every Shabbat. We humans speak many languages, so God must as well. Sacred choral music is one I happened to understand well, and intertwined voices in exuberant harmony reaches as deeply into my heart as any other prayer. Even more so, at times.

(I had an interesting experience yesterday when I found a haftarah trop sof pasuk video on YouTube and turned up the sound, forgetting that the choral station was playing when I muted the computer a few minutes earlier. So I heard the rabbi's trop above a Gregorian one, and for a few moments thought the juxtaposition was on purpose. It sounded really cool and avant garde; how clever to underscore the universality of chanted music in this way. But than I realized the pairing was accidental. Or maybe not.)

778. Shloshim

Tuesday will be the end of shloshim for my brother, the traditional thirty days of mourning. I am sad in short bursts now, mostly during services when I think of, see, or read about family, any kind of family. I remember how small mine is, and remind myself of the wonderful connections that remain--most stronger than what existed between my brother and I. But I still mourn the fact that another part of myself and my story, and my parents' stories, is gone. I dwell on this pain for a few moments, and move on. The interval between pain and good, deep breaths increases daily. I've gone back to the gym; music no longer makes me want to hide. Later today I'm going to the bris of a new cousin. Someone leaves the world, someone else enters.

But thirty days still seems like an arbitrary number. Maybe that's the point--there is no logical time frame in which to jump full force back into life. One must be pushed, like a fledgling from a next, because remaining in pain is too easy. This past Shabbat I attended a beautiful Minha/Havdalah service at my synagogue, which helped make Shabbat a truly immersive experience. There is nothing better than services in the morning followed by an afternoon of lunch, nap, studying my next Torah portion, and then reuniting with my community to bid farewell to a perfectly relaxing day. When it came time to recite the Mourner's Kaddish, however, I was the only one who stood. Again, as at the shiva minyan, my voice spoke alone except for a few communal lines reminding me I had company, and always will. But I thought of that first weekend when I davened alone in silence, the peace of being apart from any eyes except God's, and wished for solitude. Even though I knew I would fully rejoin the camp in three days, standing by myself still felt like an open wound.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

777. Upper accents

In her d'var Torah on Parashat Yitro at services yesterday morning, the rabbi discussed the first commandment--which some suggest isn't one at all. "I am the Lord your God": this statement doesn't seem to be instructing us to do, or not do, anything in particular. But surely the writer of the Torah had a reason for including it. Some commentators say that an injunction to believe in God is implied, and the subsequent nine directives require agreement with this first one. Others aren't so sure.

What intrigued me most about yesterday's reading of Asarah Ha-Diburot (the "Ten Statements"), however, was the trop. As usual at my synagogue and Sephardic congregations (although we generally follow Ashkenazic tradition), it was chanted using "upper accents"--a version of the trop that divides the Decalogue into phrases representing each statement, rather than sentence by sentence with a sof pasuk phrase ending each one. (This link goes to a video of the minor key haftarah version.) Sof pasuk is a trop, a short melody, that signals the end of a line. But some verses of the Decalogue end in the middle of a statement, so concluding the musical phrase at that point doesn't seem to make sense. Still, according to Etz Hayim, this is probably the original way trop was set to this section.

The upper accent system also combines the first two commandments as one because, says Etz Hayim (p. 1509):

"This corresponds to a midrashic tradition that these two commandments (which refer to God in the first person) were spoken directly by God to the people in a single, uninterrupted statement, whereas the rest (which speak of God in the third person) were transmitted to the people by Moses..."

This tradition also fuels the debate about whether this first commandment really is a commandment of its own. But following along with the text while listening to the upper accent trop was interesting to me for a completely different reason. I saw the printed end of a verse on the page, but didn't hear the corresponding end melody; it felt like holding my breath. I kept waiting for something to happen--but it didn't. Not being familiar enough with the untranslated Biblical Hebrew, the ending took me by surprise when it finally did arrive. Hearing the Ten Commandments in upper accents seemed like existence, in general. Unless we are fluent in life, as only God can be, endings are rarely where we expect.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

776. Fountain

For the last three weeks I haven't been able to concentrate. I thought I was, felt the same as always, but words kept on flying into one side of my head and out the other. On the Friday of Shabbat Bo, the rabbi gave a brilliant d'var Torah. I listened and was transformed, and sat down the following day to write about it. And couldn't remember a single word, still can't. At least I knew that for a few minutes I was somewhere far from sadness, although it wasn't yet time for me to remain in that place.

Now I'm closer, and feel a little guilty about it. How convenient that the shloshim is ending at almost the same time as my grief, or at least the first, most immediate part of it. Grieving according to a schedule seems to have happened despite my best attempts to wait for feelings to adjust themselves as needed. I'm reading Torah and haftarah in a few weeks, an assignment offered gently, in case I wasn't ready. But I said yes the second I got the email, my new hunger for sound as great as the desire I had, while learning my previous portion a few weeks ago, to keep silent. I got up early on Shabbat Shirah to practice before services, and sang again for an hour this morning. I feel like I've stumbled upon a fountain in the desert and don't want to stop drinking--am afraid to stop, in case the arid land suddenly reappears.

This past Friday evening the rabbi spoke about song as a vehicle for prayer to rise up and reach the place we need. He also noted Aviva Zornberg's thoughts on the Song of the Sea, which began while the Israelites were still within those walls of water--not after they reached the other side, but even as they wondered if God would really come though and they would survive. Singing, we learn, is not only for times of joy, but also to accompany longing, pain, fear. But I think there are times when prayer is supposed to reach its destination on the force of word and heart alone. I thought about saying Mourner's Kaddish that evening at the shiva minyan, surprised to hear the sound of my own voice as I recited instead of sang. I don't think my rabbis and friends had ever listened to me speak a prayer without music. To myself, without melody as a cloak, I sounded empty, tentative. That bare echo alone, music I could make only with a raw soul, didn't need any any additional fuel to find its destination.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

775. Closed

Written for a 10-minute writing exercise in my writing class this evening:

I tried to learn the lines, singing them over and over again as usual. They were familiar, the sames ones I chanted three years ago: Parashat Shemot, a plague, a hardened heart, repeat, repeat. It should have been easy, but it wasn't. My own heart and voice were hard this time, too, closed, dark.

The next morning, I got an email from the cantor--how far have you learned, he asked? The bat mitvah tutor wants to read. Do you mind? I made a joke of it--well, if you insist--but was secretly relieved. I knew the words, but felt as if they were coming from the other side of a big, deep cliff whenever I sang.

I sent the email, and went out to a diner for breakfast. I sat down, and my cell phone rang. Hello? Silence. Hello? Are you sitting? asked my niece. Sure, I said, I'm about to bite into my omelet. I'm sorry, she answered. I'm sorry. He's gone, my father is gone.

I put down my fork, and looked at the sugar swirling in my coffee cup. I understood that I had been given a message earlier that week, some preparation. I wasn't supposed to be singing, only listening, to unexpected sounds I didn't understand. Maybe, after practicing them at some future time, not now, I might be able to chant and explain the story once more.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

774. Opening

I am able to sing again, a little bit. For the past two weeks, the sounds of any kind of music caused me pain, actual, physical pain, a hollow ache that started around my heart and radiated outward. During that first week, my whole body hurt even in silence. Then on Friday I found myself listening to the Verdi Requiem (more about which I will write soon). It felt good, like a flower starting to slowly open in a desert. Afterward I had the urge to pick up Megillat Esther, and ran through chapters 4, 5 and 6 for the first time since last year. My voice was dry and stiff, but after awhile I started to sound human. I sang during services later that evening, although couldn't really feel the rhythm, or clap or sway. I went though the motions of music, but part of me was still closed. As it should be, I think.

Later that night I thought about Esther, a story of hiding in which God is present but never mentioned by name. This seemed appropriate for a first kind of utterance after great sadness. I had opened the door a crack, not yet able to see completely to the other side, but admitting the possibility that goodness would be revealed whenever I was ready to accept it.