Monday, March 30, 2009

808. Mountaintop

And here's another one of those 10-minute exercises from a few weeks ago. Topic: "Covered by God."

I was a little nervous—it had been over a year. That afternoon I practiced words I already knew in my sleep, just in case a bolt of lightning happened to strike right before services and made me forget them. But once I walked into the little room behind the bima and hugged the musicians "Shabbat Shalom," I knew they would surround me like a pile of pillows, absorbing my prayers and carrying them gently throughout the sanctuary just as they had on Yom Kippur. I heard my notes weave in and out of theirs as the rabbi's voice traded with mine and we held each other aloft. The sound seemed to be clasped in the hands of the congregation and then handed carefully back to us to make new notes and prayers. I forgot who I was.

The key was a little too high but I climbed up just the same, sure someone would catch me. I took a deep breath and reached the highest note, "Hagibor," the Mighty--and wanted to dance on top of the mountain, but came down, wistfully, as a sweet 12-year-old made kiddush while I rested on the sidelines from my journey.

807. Beckoning

Another crazy week. I've been working around the clock 24/6--but not complaining, because many of my friends aren't working at all. I'll have free time soon (probably more than I want).

Meanwhile, here's the 10-minute writing exercise from class last week, topic: "What is God's call, and what is the response?"

We belonged to a moribund synagogue in a stagnant neighborhood, where the sermon was the same every Yom Kippur: "Please make your Kol Nidre donation so we can pay the mortgage." The shul president pronounced it "muggage," and I waited every year in hopes that he would get enough money and wouldn't need to say that word. One year the man behind us, in his late 80s and one of the youngest members of the congregation, died of a heart attack during the Amidah. I dreaded the holidays more and more each year, their unpleasantness increasing over time at the the same rate as that of the relationship in which I was enmeshed.

One year they introduced a new cantor. His last name seemed to be "from Israel." He wore a funny cantor's hat, and I was not impressed. For a few hours I listened to him sing with usual cantor bombast although, unlike the previous hazzan, it was loud enough to keep me awake.

Then we got to the Hatzi Kaddish, a prayer of pause in between parts of the service. He sang a short melody just once, no repeats, but in that moment all his ice and artifice disappeared. His voice became soft and lyrical. It was one of the prettiest, gentlest melodies I'd ever heard. The service continued, but I kept hearing it in my head over and over again above the other mumbled words. I heard it in my sleep that night and again the next morning, to the surprise of my boyfriend--never before had I gotten to services so early. But I didn't know when he would sing it again, and didn't want to miss a second.

The service ended, and the relationship soon after. I joined a new synagogue with amazing melodies of its own. But that first one always echoed, beckoning to me to continue to listen carefully until I heard it again.

Monday, March 23, 2009

806. What not to say to an Arab

HT to the excellent Memoir of a Jewminicana. (Sometimes, I think, Jews assume we're the only ones on the receiving end of similarly stupid comments--so not true.)

805. Never too late

You go!

Having a Bat Mitzvah in Their 90s Because It’s a Hoot

(Except I'm a little bothered by the headline and tone of this article, which seems condescending and trivializes the seriousness and commitment with which these women approach learning and their b'not mitzvah.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

804. Lampstand

I led another shiva minyan last week. I've noticed a pattern over the past few years: more people die during the winter. Maybe it's because of cold weather, not often kind to the elderly or ill; or that shorter, greyer days take a toll on those already weary of life. Whatever the reason, I've been called to help these past two months more often than usual. I worried at first that it would be hard to lead so soon after experiencing my own loss, but that's not the case. I do feel softer, in a way, more of a sponge for sorrow in the room, but at the same time have a better sense of the nuances of pain. I am more careful with my words. I am also, perhaps, less likely to stick around and shmooze afterwards; my threshold for sadness is lower, which I think will change over time. I'm also grateful that I don't do this on a regular basis, and can't imagine how rabbis (or doctors) hold all our emotions while dealing with the ones in their own lives. I guess the best of them learn to master this skill, as difficult as Talmud.

The minyan last week was as beautiful as all the others. The deceased was loved by a big family, and let go of life only after being assured her job was complete--that her children would put aside longtime arguments and fully embrace each other once again. We prayed while surrounded by photos of a woman with an infectious smile who didn't seem to age even as everyone else looked older and more wrinkled. I spoke about the lampstand in Parashat Vayakhel/Pikudei and how its arms, like members of our community, branched out from a strong backbone. I wished those in mourning the strength of that backbone and comfort of the embracing, golden arms that the rest of us tried to provide.

803. Golden Calf

Yesterday morning at services the rabbi raised an interesting question: why is the Golden Calf debacle in the Torah? It makes us look like a whiny, disobedient, untrustworthy nation, not at all flattering. The Torah includes many stories of our mistakes, of course, so we can learn from them--but an awful lot of space is devoted to this one. It could have been shorter, gentler.

But to suppress part of this ugliness would have lessened the likelihood of tikkun, repair, suggested the rabbi. We need to confront the most honest versions of our narratives in order to truly understand and integrate them into our lives. We spend far too much time and energy hiding the parts of our stories we don't like, for example: 'Shooting and crying,' from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, an account by soldiers of IDF abuse of civillians. Some commanders were kind and ethical; those stories were readily shared in the media. Others, much less flattering, were not. Much of what happened during the Gaza war was, like life in general, neither completely good nor completely evil.

To become good, we first need to acknowledge that we have the capacity to be the opposite. As the rabbi spoke, I thought not of Israel but of the narrative of my own family and the parts I learned, as a child, never to share. No explicit reasons were given; we just didn't talk about such things. But when I finally did, in recent months, both to friends privately and at the shiva minyan, I felt whole again--able to fully embrace my story and family, even though most of them are now gone. They are still part of me, and always will be.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

802. Air

Back to our regularly scheduled blog about spiritual stuff:

As I mentioned last Monday, I led a shiva minyan immediately prior to chanting part of Megillat Esther. I had been worried about timing--the minyan was just a few blocks away, but began only an hour before I had to be at services, which were 15 minutes away. And I needed about 15 minutes to put on my costume. (Leading a minyan while wearing a green wig would not be appropriate.) This left 1/2 hour for tefillah, not much time, especially since it's the custom at my synagogue to spend a few minutes at each minyan sharing stories about the deceased

"It's almost the end of the week, and they've had a minyan each night," said the woman from the Hevra Kadisha. "I'm sure they won't have much to say." She promised to alert the family beforehand about my schedule.

But I didn't want anyone to feel rushed. A shiva minyan doesn't happen in a normal human timescale; when it's your shiva minyan, it seems to take forever while also happening instantaneously. And I wasn't chanting until chapter 4, so would be in good shape even if a half hour late. We began five minutes early, the mourners, incredibly gracious, trying to stay on schedule for my behalf. Then we reached the speaking part, and there was indeed much to say. A woman had lost her husband; a daughter, her stepfather. How could a whole life fit in just seven days of memories? I had the sense that this family was only beginning to learn how to speak of these things, and that every night of shiva brought more pent-up words and tears. The week was almost over; they knew the drill by now. There was none of the awkwardness I had noticed on those other occasions when I led the first service following a funeral. The family spoke for many minutes and then, like a balloon speeding untethered around a room until the air was gone, all words were spent and we sat in silence.

I said goodbye and ran back home, put on my wig, and entered a world just as surreal and topsy-turvy as that of someone who had just lost the love of her life.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Monday, March 16, 2009

800. Piyyut

I posted about this last year, but in honor of my 800th post (!!!) wanted to bring a little music into this blog and remind everyone of a most amazing website:

An Invitation to Piyyut

Piyyutim are liturgical poems, both ancient and contemporary, and "piyyut" is an art form that sets this poetry to music from all over the world. Almost every culture that ever hosted a Jewish community has its own tradition of piyyut. And in Israel there's now a piyyut revival among both secular and religious communities--"a new 'retro' trend" of meeting weekly and singing. Just amazing. I'm currently taking a class on piyyutim of Shabbat, and we're learning songs in Turkish, Syrian, neo-Hassidic, and all manner of Ashkenzic and Sephardic styles. They're emotional, challenging, scholarly (most of this poetry references a kaleidoscope of verses from the Tanakh) and, of course, utterly beautiful. Click around the site--anywhere will do--to hear to some of these jewels.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

799. Idolatry

At services yesterday we had a wonderful speaker who shared thoughts about the Golden Calf episode in Parashat Ki Tissa. What's the most common idol today? he asked. Money, of course, we replied. No, he countered, it's ourselves; we think we're God, rather than agents of God on earth. We forget that every single one of us is created in God's image, so there is something to be learned even from those who are evil. And for this reason we often forget about humility--that our individual levels of power or influence are no greater or less than anyone else's, no matter what our position in society.

I chanted Torah again yesterday, and listened to these words as I geared up to go to the bima and remain calm. I began to think about the time I read at the Kotel, and the feeling that God was guiding the yad from word to word. My hand moved by itself, but it was only an illusion of control. How special I felt to be chosen to chant at that moment--but my ability to do so was completely dependent upon everyone else combining their individual pieces of God into one big, focusing mirror that reflected strength directly into my soul. We were all equal players in the moment. And here were are again, I thought, a different place and time but the same cast of characters. They carried me then and would now, too, so I had no reason to be nervous.

(My reasoning wasn't entirely successful; my hands still shook when I got to the bima. But my knees were steadier than ever.)

798. Twitter (again)

So I decided to heed my strange dream about Twitter and plunge in. Over the past three days a few dozen multi-level marketers, self-professed Internet gurus, and others who guarantee I'll have a thousand followers in no time all want to be my friends so they can find out, on a minute-by-minute basis, what kind of sandwich I'm eating for lunch. Like any other place either real or virtual, newcomers are easy prey for snake-oil salesmen. I followed them back for a day and discovered they were pretty boring, so am now concentrating on tweets from news organizations (New York Times, NPR, CNN, JTA, The Onion), people who have interesting things to say about design, Judaism, or social media, and actual friends (few of whom have ventured into these strange waters).

Twitter feels a bit like the Wild West, as comments, complaints, and trivial, terse bits of info get tossed about with abandon. Every time my Twitteriffic window pops up, I feel like I'm sticking a butterfly net into the wind. I doubt Twitter will help my business (my original intention, and why I use my real name there; "alto artist" will stay home on the blog), but one never knows. Perhaps a random follower will be intrigued by my words about design and Judaism and hire me for my knowledge about both. But whatever happens, I believe Twitter is another key step into this new world of Web 2.0, (or 3.0, or whatever number we're now up to) and life with far fewer walls and boundaries than ever before. I remember some years ago when "push" was the rage--news and ads on your desktop even before you knew you needed them!--and then everyone discovered how irritating this was. But now we all want it on our phones, too impatient to wait even a few extra minutes for email to be "pulled" in on a regular schedule. With Twitter, the whole world becomes an IM. Headlines and the musings of hundreds of strangers appear the instant they're written; no need to waste seconds clicking on a bookmark.

Oddly, this is not as annoying as it sounds (so far). I suddenly feel very connected to the world, or at least the geeky, early-adopter part of it. This technology is like TV, a stream of passive input. And there is something, dare I say, spiritual about it, a chain of ideas that reminds me of my perception of God as a small part of something larger that resides in us all. Last year I compared God to BitTorrent; maybe Twitter is a better metaphor, because God is always sending us messages even when we choose not to get them. But, forgive the endless extension of this metaphor, one day we find the right piece of software and are ready to receive.

Maybe this new sense of connection will bleed over into the culture at large, like other radical inventions, and those involved in the Middle East conflict will learn to listen to each other in new ways. Or we'll learn from Twitter's enforced 140-character terseness, and begin to speak directly to one another and say what we mean. Or we'll fully embrace the concept of having "followers" and start to see everyone as a prophet, each speaking a part of the greater truth.

Or we'll decide that Twitter is a big waste of time. Who knows, but it's nice to imagine a world in which technology has some kind of positive, spiritual effect.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

797. Elevator (part 2)

(Continued from here.)

I thought of this strange moment a week later when I got in the elevator and was joined by one of my downstairs neighbors, a handsome man with a really ugly bulldog. The man, who could be a GQ model, is quite a contrast to his dog, who slobbers and drools through a grimace that only another bulldog could love. But I'm sure one does, because the dog seems very happy and obedient, little stump of a tail wagging frantically as she sits at her master's feet and lets everyone on the elevator pet her as they try to think of something complimentary to say. "My, she's gotten big!" The man used to live with a woman who also looked like a model, and whenever they got on the elevator I marveled at how two such esthetically matched people could have found each other. But then the tall blonde lady disappeared, and suddenly I began to see the man in the elevator with a short, round, smiling curly-haired woman who looked merely human. Shortly thereafter came a really cute baby, and the ugly dog.

Whenever the man and dog get on the elevator, I'm reminded of God's cleverness at creating so many different kinds of beauty. How amazing to share a world with life that looks like this or this or this, let alone this. It's proof that God is everywhere, as asymmetrical and quirky as God's own creatures. And sometimes this imperfect God even forgets where God is, and reminds us at the most inappropriate time and place, in the guise of a talking elevator panel, that we really need to take a vacation.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

796. Elevator (part 1)

My building has a new elevator. (The old one worked just fine in 1916, but had gotten a little tired since then. Upon entering, one was required to calculate the number of people present [one dog = 1/2 human? what about 2 babies?] to ascertain if we exceeded the magic number of 4 and, if so, was it worth challenging the odds and possibly getting stuck between floors 11 and 12. Fellow riders often disagreed with the majority decision. The elevator could be a mean and contentious place.) The new elevator, all dark wood and brass adorned with slick red LEDs, swift and silent like the wind, is a thing of efficient beauty.

The other day I got on en route to the lobby, and settled in for 12 perfect seconds. We stopped two floors down, and another woman entered. We nodded hello, exchanging glances of smug entitlement: yo, we are the luckiest. We have the best elevator in the city.

Then: "Do you want a free Mediterranean vacation? Just press 2!" said the elevator.

The other woman and I looked at each other in shock. The elevator continued:

"Or get on our mailing list to qualify for future drawings! Just press 3!" The perky female voice seemed to emanate from the floor button panel, where one could indeed to press 2 or 3. The woman and I stood stood frozen in place, with jaws dropped. The last thing we wanted to do was prolong the ride by stopping at other floors. The elevator continue to prattle away about our wonderful chances of floating in a perfect blue sea.

We reached the lobby. I did not want to be anywhere near the elevator, and raced to the door. The other woman confronted the doorman: "It talked to us! The elevator talked to us!" she screamed, first in English and then in Spanish, as if to emphasize the global horror of this event.

I never found out what happened, but presumably the crossed wires were fixed sometime that afternoon. On my next trip upstairs, all sales pitches were duly stifled.

(To be continued.)

Monday, March 09, 2009

795. Money

Sneak peak just for readers of this blog: if you could be at my synagogue tonight, which most of you can't, you might hear a woman chanting chapters 4, 5 and 6 of Megillat Esther while wearing a short green wig and the tiara and shirt pictured at left. Yes, I am dressing up as the economic recovery package. Since this is a holiday of masks and antitheses, being and doing what one usually is not, adorning myself in money seems to be the perfect opposite of the rest of my life. Purim is also about making fun of what's scary; the state of the economy fits that criteria. In keeping with the times, this costume is also green in all senses of the word. When I'm done, I will carefully un-pin the bills and recycle them by re-depositing them into my bank account. (Except for the part that will go to matanot l'evyonim, of course.)

And an hour before I drape myself in money, I will lead a shiva minyan. The timing is a tight--I had a nightmare last night about not getting to services in time to read--but I agreed to do it because I know the rabbis will be much busier getting into very complicated costumes (such as the 7-foot-tall chicken of a few years ago), and also because it's a chance for me to say Mourner's Kaddish away from the usual cacophony and merriment of the evening. Purim is my mother's yahrtzeit, and I'm sure she will be somewhere at that moment enjoying my green hair, proud that I am helping others get to the point where they can laugh again one day, as well. The contrast between these two events, the shiva minyan and the bizarre and happy Purim service, seems to express the meaning of this holiday much better than just showing up and getting drunk. (Which I never do. May be a few years from now when I know the Megillah reading much, much better.)

Hag Purim Sameah! (And please don't drink too much.)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

794. Really old

Amazing--a Torah scroll discovered in New York that was written between 1272 and 1302:

Even Among Venerable Texts, a Torah Like No Other

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

793. Healing

From last week's writing class, another 10-minute essay exercise. Topic: healing yourself while healing another:

As a member of the Hevra Kadisha, all I had to do was show up at a shiva minyan when needed. It terrified me; I hated it. I was afraid to breathe in those rooms of pain. And I was also afraid that any word, offered even in the nicest and most neutral way, would take me back to the four uncles and four aunts and two cousins and two parents who left their lives over a remarkably short number of years, and would force me to remember strained conversations and the impression that all families and friends of mourners wanted to do was eat. My first act upon walking into a shiva home was to identify the location of the cold cuts, in case I needed a quick escape.

But after attending a few minyans, I began to sense that middle place my rabbi explained we were entering, a strange zone between life and death where memories melt and flame until only the best are refined and remain to shine. I learned to sit on the edge of the sofa waiting for the story of this one's true love, that one's passion and humor in life. I learned that my presence as a listener made it possible for the teller of the story to extend the life of the person who died, and change pain in some small way from acute to slow and steady, and livable. And when I found myself on the other side of the room as the storyteller, I felt the energy and embrace of the listeners keep me breathing, as well.

Monday, March 02, 2009

792. Ash Wednesday

Every Wednesday at an obscenely early hour of the morning, I attend a weekly breakfast business networking group that happens to meet a block from St. Patrick's Cathedral. This past week was Ash Wednesday, and so en route to the the meeting I passed dozens of people who had just received black smudges on their foreheads.

Years ago I remember seeing observers of Ash Wednesday and imagining how awful they must have felt while everyone stared as they tried to shoulder through the crowd. I was almost afraid to look, lest I be lumped in with the inconsiderate starers. But I really wanted to. How could anyone appear so willingly weird in public? The key to navigating New York City was ingrained in me since childhood: be quick and invisible. I've always been an artist and individualist, and never wanted to look or act like anyone else--but didn't want to be all that different, either. To engage in a public display of personal belief seemed embarrassing.

But now I want to high-five the forehead-smudged faithful as they walk past. They remind me of me on Yom Kippur, as I make my way through busy intersections dressed in white from head to toe, or the silent bond I feel whenever I notice a man in the the subway who's wearing a kippah , even if he's black-hat Orthodox and might not want to give me the time of day. I am momentarily jealous that the whole world can't see how much I appreciate the rituals of my tradition, as well. Believing in God, whatever that means, has changed me in a way that's a little like leaving adolescence. It's no longer just about what the world thinks of me, but that I am obligated to be and give of myself to this world--and am never alone in the process.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

791. Stratosphere

I helped lead Shabbat services this past Friday evening, first time in over a year. (I think this was my 20th, in total. I may have lost count.) Times sure does fly. I've missed leading, but we now have a whole bunch of interns who help, as they should. I've long gotten over thinking I wasn't called because I didn't do a good enough job... well, mostly gotten over. So it was very nice to be asked, and trusted so much that the cantor almost forget to tell me at which service he wanted me.

I didn't realized until Friday how much I've learned, and changed, since November, 2007. A year of Biblical Hebrew has given me greater understanding of grammar; I can now sing with the knowledge of how words fit into sentence structure. Even without complete, literal understanding of their meaning, this makes a big difference in phrasing. All the reading and writing I had to do in class has helped the liturgy trip more easily off my tongue, although I already knew it by heart. And I've become more at ease with my discovery, during Yom Kippur Minha in 2007 (thanks to a combination of physical exhaustion, hunger-fueled breathing, and--something else) that sound need not be arduous to produce. I think I'm also more comfortable in general about standing in front of the community, and accepting that my presence at the bima isn't a complete fluke of nature.

I was nervous at first, but knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. A few times I lost sense of myself, like I was singing while floating in an ocean of the people in the peripheral vision right over my siddur. Their energy felt like a pile of pillows, safe, comfortable, gentle, strong, absorbing my prayer into a wide, slow current. I think, also, that my heart is still mending from recent sadness, and my sound on Friday was a question to God--a little defiant--rather than a statement. I didn't do a perfect job. I made a few mistakes, was ragged at the beginning, came in haltingly once or twice. But I don't think it mattered.

I also renewed my enormous respect for rabbinical students who do this without benefit of years of listening to my congregation pray. I had forgotten about all the improvisation at the bima--alternating the leading of verses, except when you don't; expecting a certain tune, and hearing a different one; and, most interestingly, singing in a comfortable key, except when the guitarist assumes the rabbi, a tenor, will sing a certain line (because he always does) and so plays the intro in his much higher key. And then understanding that the rabbi, as he steps almost imperceptibly away from the bima, is generously inviting YOU to sing that line, way up in the highest reaches of the stratosphere. I remembered that the cantor thought I was a soprano, and prayed that believing would make it so. I climbed as gently as possible, hoping the matriarchs would forgive me for sort of hiccuping through their names, reached the summit ("hagibor," "the mighty"), and landed gently.

And then I wanted to do it again, but the service was over.