Tuesday, September 22, 2009

842. Update

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

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

Friday, September 18, 2009

841. Happy birthday, 5770!

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

Friday, September 11, 2009

840. Eight Years

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

After the Storms, an Island of Calm — and Resilience

An excerpt:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, September 07, 2009

839. Ceiling

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

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


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

838. Coming and going

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 04, 2009

837. It's really Elul, part 2

(Continued from here.)

So, as I was saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

837. It's really Elul, part 1

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

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

"Do you want to lead?"

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

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

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

(Continued here.)