Tuesday, June 30, 2009

824. Michael Jackson and a perfect Shabbat

Since I'm on a music reminiscing roll, I need to mention Michael Jackson. I was surprised at how devastated I was by his death. His music was the soundtrack to the some of the most purely joyous parts of my college years, the Glee Club post-concert parties where we'd shift effortlessly from Brahms to Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" and, best of all, "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough." We played those two songs over and over again until I wondered if the Officer in Charge of Parties owned any other records. I didn't care, though; there were no sounds more gleeful, especially when accompanied by strong blue punch (in the days before Connecticut's drinking age was raised to 21), or better captured those few moments when you're young and your only job is to try to stay a kid while growing up, and have fun. Michel Jackson and I--and, incidentally, a real live boy or two--danced for hours and hours at those parties and then slept in the next day, dragging ourselves to the library by noon to the echoes of that swirling violin intro.

Another memory is his pre-teen face on the cover of of a teenybopper magazine that was pinned to the wall of my friend Cindy's bedroom. She was convinced that Donny Osmond was the best. You're nuts, I insisted; The Jackson 5 are far cuter. We argued back and forth for an hour. My musical tastes were still unformed back then, somewhere between the "Für Elise" I had to practice over and over and whatever played on 77 WABC. I hadn't yet learned the difference between "I'll Be There" and Sonny and Cher--but once I did, a few years later, I knew my initial, clueless assessment was correct.

I wish he could have had a real childhood, so he could have grown into a real adult. The combination of genius and screwed-up parents seems too much for any human to bear. I'm also hitting myself on the forehead in frustration, having only discovered over the last few days those amazing YouTube clips of dancing that look like flying, a language of movement he concocted from the steps of many predecessors and made into something totally new. Even with the sound turned off, I want to leap up from the couch in response and pretend I'm still 19.

@holyweblog on Twitter shared this telling article from Beliefnet, written during the period where he was tight with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, in which Michael Jackson talks about his idea of paradise, a world where he could be ordinary:

My Childhood, My Sabbath, My Freedom

An excerpt:

"When people see the television appearances I made when I was a little boy--8 or 9 years old and just starting off my lifelong music career--they see a little boy with a big smile. They assume that this little boy is smiling because he is joyous, that he is singing his heart out because he is happy, and that he is dancing with an energy that never quits because he is carefree.

But while singing and dancing were, and undoubtedly remain, some of my greatest joys, at that time what I wanted more than anything else were the two things that make childhood the most wondrous years of life, namely, playtime and a feeling of freedom. The public at large has yet to really understand the pressures of childhood celebrity, which, while exciting, always exacts a very heavy price."

Imaging what his singing and dancing might have been if not bound by these other chains. It's almost too beautiful to contemplate. But he really did understand Shabbat, a time when we're freed from the weights of earth and can simply be who we are, the purest essence of what God created.

Monday, June 29, 2009

823. Gospel music, part 2

(Continued from here.)

My class has stayed in touch, mostly because of the miracle of Facebook, and a few months ago someone got the idea of renting the old building up in Harlem and putting on a reunion concert of the gospel choir, who had their very own solo on the FAME soundtrack. An old friend emailed--come sing with us! But I was an art student, I answered; I'd feel like an interloper. You're still one of us, she wrote back. I waffled until the very last rehearsal, as did others. Maybe we all feared an anticlimactic coda to those great old memories. For me, it was simply about being chicken; I'd never before sung in a gospel choir.

But the rehearsal--conducted by the guy in our class who wrote that solo on the soundtrack when just a teenager--was electrifying, and felt not all that different from the music I sing at my synagogue. It sounded different, of course, and was much, much louder, at a volume geared to wake up anyone who might be on the fence about this God business, but that was the least of it. As at my services, we swayed back and forth, clapped, and were thrilled to proclaim praises in the company of people we didn't know very well, but loved just the same. I was astonished by the speed with which everyone (except me) picked up the music. Nothing was written down. The conductor sang a line, complete with complex rhythm and tricky tonal leaps; we repeated it once or twice; then we combined with the other parts and made glorious harmony. Our skills ranged from professional musicians to those who hadn't sung at all in a decade or two--but just about everyone (except me) had been immersed in this particular lexicon all their lives.

I muddled through the rehearsal, exhilarated to discover a whole new language of sound. At the concert I hid in the back row, which came in handy when we performed two completely unfamiliar songs--but I didn't panic, followed the conductor's carefully mouthed words, swayed when everyone else did, and had a blast. The concert started an hour late ("gospel time," someone said, which seems to be just like "Jewish time") and lasted until 1AM, when stage and audience joined in on, you guessed it, the theme song from FAME. It was corny and perfect. For one night we returned to a world that didn't really exist all those years ago, either, one in which friendships extending beyond lines of color, lifestyle, income, etc. were the rule rather than the exception. The rest of society is a little closer to where were were back then, but still has a lot to learn.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

822. Gospel music, part 1

(She doesn't write for weeks and then comes back with a post called "gospel music"??)

Don't worry, I didn't do anything major in the interim like switch religions. But I did have an incredible non-synagogue singing experience last week. I went to an amazing high school and we just had an, ahem, significantly-numbered reunion. The school--including its other half, about which the movie FAME was made--got a new name and building a few years after I left. FAME was shot the summer after I graduated and the last scene, the grand musical extravaganza, featured all my friends in the chorus and orchestra--but not me, since I was an art student and so wasn't allowed to sing at school, or audition to be an extra.

The movie, despite being loosely based on all of us, is definitely a work of fiction. I recall no wild lunchtime dancing in the street and doubt this ever happened at Performing Arts, either. (Cars in New York in the late 70s would have most likely run down crazy kids who tried to leap over traffic in the middle of Broadway.) But we loved the movie just the same. It captured the feeling of being immersed in the arts in a completely accepting environment, where it was cool if you liked Bach or Shakespeare, or was an artsy nerd who dressed in spike heels, vintage 50s skirts, and a bright green band jacket (like I did). We admired one another for our abilities rather than the amount of money we could afford on shoes. There were no bullies. Music and Art was the bridge that helped me grow from a child shy about using my talents into a young adult thirsty to develop them all, whether or not they were in style according to the rest of the world. It changed me from a follower into an individual, into myself.

( Continued here.)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

821. Fresh air

A few days ago I started a long post about why I hated Hebrew School, but ended up depressing myself so much that I never finished. I'll get to it one day. For now, instead, I'll write about my weekend, which was full of all the enrichment, expansion, and joy that Hebrew School never even came close to.

I was at my synagogue's community retreat, once an annual event but on a break for the past few years. I'm so glad it's back. There was no agenda other than to be with one another in a beautiful, green camp by a big lake, where a few fat ducks and many tiny caterpillars joined us on the grass for prayer, study, and barbecue. We were a mix of families, non-parent adults, and lots of little kids—populations whose paths don't often cross in our community. I loved watching the next few generations put on a little play about the whiny Israelites of Parashat Beha'alotekha, more fun even than the make-your-own sundaes we had after dinner on Saturday night. (Ice cream, hot dogs—no, not together, don't worry—foods I rarely touch these days in an attempt to be healthier. But my understanding is that they have no calories when eaten on picnic tables next to a field of daffodils on Shabbat.) I even did some Israeli dancing, a pastime I've avoided most of my life because I tend to trip over my own feet, and all the Israeli dancing teachers I've ever met were really dorky. But this weekend's teacher was cool.

The best part, though, was where we had Shabbat morning services—outdoors on a little wooden platform surrounded by air so fresh that you could practically see all the mosquitoes' tiny chests expanding in deep, nourishing breaths (right before they bit me, that is. But I'm not complaining.) I chanted Torah and listened as the trop flew up into the trees, probably returning to its origins. I had an aliyah for those of us who, like the Nazirites of last week's portion, had taken a vow—but who hadn't quite been able to make it work. So I tried to rededicate myself, with witnesses of leaves, sky, and friends, to many old and new promises.

Monday, June 01, 2009

820. Back from Sinai, part 2

(Continued from here).

I attribute the difference this Shavuot to two reasons. For the first time ever, I counted the entire omer (well, I missed one day, but tried to take the rest even more seriously to make up some extra kavannah), and thanks to this little but intense book, considered the meaning and intention of each number. Like a path of footsteps across the desert, the weeks after Pesah took on shape and distance, and became tangible markers of time. The second reason: I participated in a Twitter marathon of Torah right before the holiday, posting a bunch of mini-commentaries throughout the day. (Example: "Ex 20:13, do not steal: Not just objects, but also honor, dignity, freedom, joy. We rightly own those things, too.") So I was able to warm up before the real thing. Reading the whole, live stream of #Torah as it unfolded was like listening to the din in a beit midrash—a little overwhelming, not always intelligible, but with bits of wisdom that shone through like stars in a cloudy sky.

I couldn't help but remember my strange dream of a few months ago, now proven completely baseless. Torah study via Twitter may not be deep, but it's certainly wide—our scrappy virtual yeshiva spanned the country and few time zones. All Jews stood together at Sinai and I think we rehearsed, via Twitter, the spatial equivalent of that concept. Any tool for creating community and joining like-minded souls through ideas and language can't be all bad.