Sunday, October 25, 2009

850. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 5

(Continued from here.)

(One night last week I dreamt that my synagogue decided to have another set of High Holy Day services in Guadalajara, Mexico, and I was asked to help lead. We'd stay at a luxury resort, but the services themselves would be at at 7-Eleven on the side of the highway so as to reach the most people. It sounded like great fun, especially the lounging-by-the-pool part. I think this means I need a vacation.)

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah I was at the Usual Church, where we have Shabbat services for half the year. (Only families with young kids got to use the actual, gorgeous synagogue this Yamim Nora'im, which wasn't large enough for the rest of us.) I love this place, which is big, grey, unassuming, unadorned (in deference to our co-tenancy, and well above and beyond the call of duty, they removed all church-related symbols from the walls years ago), and home to five or six different religious groups and a few small orchestras. Show up on the right winter evening and you can hear African sacred music against the backdrop of Shostakovitch or someone's Bar Mitzvah Torah portion. My favorite parts of the church sanctuary are two slightly bedraggled stone angels on either side of altar; I've decided they must be the serafim and ofanim we invoke in the Amidah, always standing tall despite decades of damage from a leaky roof.

Although I tried to be fashionably on time, I was still the first one in the Secret Rabbi Room. By 8:55 we had all gathered and hugged hello. Everyone was so energetic and happy that you might have thought we were about to run a marathon instead of stand immobile and pray for three hours. At the bima, I was amazed at how crowded it looked even at 9AM (one benefit of dividing a few thousand people into two locations instead of three). I began to sing: "Hareni mikabelet..." and heard what sounded like an echo, but couldn't have been; it was a man's voice. At this church, unlike yesterday's, I could both see mouths moving along with the prayers as well as hear what was coming out of them. The sound from the back of the sanctuary was a warm hum, a blanket of words alongside mine. From the first row, however, I could hear every utterance—flat, loud, a half a beat behind—as clear as if the singer were an inch from my ear.

I have a feeling that our first-row people, who always sit in the first row, have cousins in every religious tradition that ever existed. Ms. Loud is a champion volunteer, and once donated an important internal organ to a total stranger, saving his life. Goodness personified, she sings with boundless zeal. She is also tone deaf. Mr. Louder has been studying holy texts (the Torah, in this case, but his Buddhist, Muslim, and Methodist counterparts use different books) since birth. He can summon up appropriate verses at the blink of an eye. He loves to pray and occasionally stands and shouts his favorite lines, sometimes even a second or two before the hazzan gets to them. He is also tone deaf.

And there they both sat, about two feet away from me.

(To be continued.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

849. Big black dot detour

I usually avoid mixing this space with the design part of my life, but am violently, uncontrollably compelled to note something I saw earlier today. I keep pretty good track of local culture, but managed to miss this past summer's rebranding of the New York City Opera. On a bus going down Central Park West a few hours ago, I noticed banners hanging from almost every single light pole advertising the Opera's new season. The banners were white, with black sans serif type at the top and the bottom, and smack in the middle: a big black dot. Very big. Solid black.

I pondered this for block after block, checking to see if perhaps I'd spied an incomplete or defaced banner. No, they were all like this.

Did the dot represent a super-sized, filled-in "O" for Opera, like I used to do as a kid with a ballpoint pen to all the words in my mother's magazines? (Any letter with a hole in it was fair game.) Was it cultural commentary on the endless vortex of bad taste begging to be filled with high culture? Or tongue in cheek (opera is a black hole that will suck you in for eternity if you're not careful)?

I couldn't guess, but could tell that it was really ugly.

I guess I move in the wrong circles. Here's an explanation of the dot. I admire the designer's chutzpah, and the client's sense of adventure. Occasionally, in the world of graphic design, ugly spends some time as the new beautiful. I imagined presenting this concept to my most forward-thinking client; even they would laugh nervously, and check to see if I had a fever.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

848. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 4

(Continued from here.)

(Update on the fire: What a strange week this was. I felt like I was living in a fog, biding time until a catastrophe befell me, too. The loud hum of industrial-strength air filters working 24/7 outside my door didn't help, either. But on Thursday, when I realized Shabbat was only a day away and I needed to clean up and get ready, I straightened up the mess both in these rooms and in my head, said another prayer of thanks, and resumed being myself.)

Back to the first day of Rosh Hashanah:

It was strange, at first, to be in front of everyone in an unfamiliar place and immediately have to pray out loud. I'd always had a chance to stand for a minute or two on the stage or bima a few days before I led at other locations; when I finally opened my mouth I knew, sort of, what it might feel like. Not this time. But after a few minutes I realized that the audio guys had done their job, and we were loud—probably very loud. There wasn't a monitor, but I could hear an echo bouncing off the walls, like a polite reply from the chandelier: yes, you're up here. And the view from the bima wasn't much different than what I saw years ago from the low first row of the balcony: a restless quilt of seats and people punctuated by the occasional white column and gold balustrade, Jesus and Mary of the Back Window demurely obscured by a diaphanous opaque white cloth upon which were embroidered 20-foot-high Hebrew letters for the word mizrah (east).

We began to sing and pray, and it felt like home. I couldn't hear the congregation but saw their mouths moving, enough to assure me that we were all in this together. I stood next to not just one, but two rabbis; I was the final link in a chain of electricity, energy magnifying and multiplying as it traveled to my side of the bima.

We reached the repetition of the Amidah, and I called each of the patriarchs and matriarchs by name. As is customary in my congregation, we linger a bit on Ya'akov and Leah, as if to say: you may be last on the list, but not in our hearts. I tried to picture them as I prayed, imagining gentle, dark-haired people serving flat bread in low houses alongside the desert. We smiled at one another; I could almost hear them singing back to me.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

847. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 3

(Continued from here.)

(As I was in the middle of writing this post, a dozen firemen ran into the hallway outside my apartment and tried to knock down my neighbor's door. The hallway filled with smoke. I opened my door, and a fireman yelled to stay inside. So I put my two cats into the carrier, grabbed my wallet and some photos, tried to remember to breathe, paced, prayed, and posted on Facebook from my phone, which made me feel much less alone. Sirens, breaking glass, awful smells. But finally the ambulances and fire trucks left, and I learned that no one was hurt. A downstairs neighbor had left a candle burning, and it fell over and started the fire. That apartment and another on this floor were seriously damaged. I am very, very lucky, and thank God that I can sit here now and write some more about the New Year, or write anything at all.)

Back to Rosh Hashanah:

The Yamim Nora'im began with one big service at Massive Church, where all the rabbis and the hazzan stood together at the bima and welcomed 2,500 of us into the new year. These sound like unmanageable, un-haimishe numbers, but it wasn't like that at all. Imagine, instead, an entire small town lucky enough to fit under one roof. The ceiling stretched to the heavens, but the balconies aspired toward ground level—so low that their first rows (where I once sat with the choir) were even closer to the rabbis than seats way up front, down below. We all seemed to meet somewhere around the Ark that was situated right between both levels.

The following morning, as in past years, I got up at the crack of dawn to warm up—but soon discovered that I was pretty warm already. Ever since this moment two years ago, my voice has been different—more pliable, easier to navigate between chest and head—I don't know exactly how or why, and part of me keeps waiting for it to change back into that old, tense kind of voice. But so far so good. I sang, dozed, sang some more, and then walked ten blocks (instead of three miles, what a relief). I wanted to run, actually. I couldn't wait to get there and begin the adventure once again.

I slipped under the right side of the stage and waited on the Laura Ashley sofa as people rushed around and complained about the sound (a bit muffled the night before, and those in the back couldn't hear at all). The audio guy swore he fixed the problem, but no one else was sure. Since I would be standing at the far left of the bima and the sitting room was under stage right stairs, I had to lead the way upstairs. We hugged and wished each Shanah Tovah, and I headed down a little hallway—which turned a corner to another hallway. For a second I thought I went the wrong way and we'd have to wander below the bima for 40 more seconds, minutes, or years—but then I saw the stairway, and the light of the sanctuary above it. We climbed up the carefully engineered platform and, in front of a gathering crowd, took our places right below the Ark.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

846. Ending and beginning

(I know, I still have to finish writing about the rest of the Yamim Nora'im—but I think I'll work backwards.)

Simhat Torah, last night and today: imagine the most fun wedding in the world. And you're one of the betrothed, and everyone else is family. Not all close family—some distant relatives, a few of them rude (would they ignore the rabbi's polite plea and dare to take flash photos in the middle of services at their own shuls, I wonder?)—but even those annoying cousins get into the spirit, dancing and singing as if today were the last time to dance and sing ever.

The evening begins with slow drama. The sanctuary is cleared; little kids run up and down the middle of the big space and the rest of us grab seats along the side, forgetting that we'll sit for only a minute. The rabbis beckon us to come closer to the Ark—nothing to be afraid of! But every year we're tentative, as if traversing the empty expanse of carpet is too intimate an approach. Finally we straggle up front, and a rabbi begins to sing:

"You have been clearly shown that the Lord is God; there is none beside God." (Deuteronomy 4:35)

Has this been clearly shown to me? Do I really know? I can't, ever, but at that moment I do. The voices become more insistent with each verse, and in that wind of song is the truth of everything I don't understand but know is life, is a miracle, good and perfect.

Seven hakafot, seven rounds of careening around the sanctuary, each one about 20 minutes long, and the music keeps getting faster and faster. Sometimes I'm bored going around and around—it seems to defy our culture of always moving forward. How often can I hear the same snippet of tune, see the back doors fly by once again? But then the person grasping my left hand leaves, and I open it and wait for someone else to latch on. They do—and our chain snakes inside a different circle and around a new Torah, and the dance is completely changed. Sometimes we go so fast that I get dizzy, and it's all I can do to avoid tripping over my own feet. Sometimes we barely move, trying to squeeze between other chains that have nimbler leaders. Fast, slow, fast, never the same.

I walk out after a few hours to see hundreds of people waiting on a line that reaches around the block. We throw a good party, and all of New York knows it. It hasn't stopped feeling like home—it's still my music, still my rabbis jumping up and down in bliss with their arms wrapped around the sifrei Torah—and I'm proud that so many guests want to experience this joy, but there's no longer any room left for me. It's OK, because I return the next morning when the shul-hoppers of the Upper West Side are still in bed. We dance again, and this time I can see my own feet when I hook onto a long line of people who try to wave me aloft like a big banner as we twirl around the room.

"Last hakafah!" yells the rabbi. This is it—the culmination of every moment of prayer and pain, wish and regret, laugh and tear of the past month. The tune is a new one to me, from Isaiah 27:13:

Vehayah bayom hahu yitaka beshofar gadol uva'u ha'ovdim be'eretz Ashur vehanidachim be'eretz Mitzrayim vehishtachavu l'HASHEM behar hakodesh biYerushalayim.

"It shall be on that day that a great shofar will be blown, and those who are lost in the land of Assyria and those cast away in the land of Egypt will come [together], and they will prostrate themselves to HASHEM on the holy mountain in Yerushalayim."

That's us. We heard the shofar, and here we are. We all join in the last dance, even those sitting along the sides, and carve the space into concentric circles that go in different directions around the Torot.

Suddenly it's over. We sigh and straighten our tallitot, and push the bima into the middle of the room. We say farewell to eight of the scrolls as they make a final circuit around the sanctuary. Three more remain, and with their help we end and begin once again.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

845. 140 more characters

Hey, look, a book of Torah tweets! Including some contributors I know, how about that.

Twitter Torah

844. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 2

(Continued from here.)

(I should add, in case anyone read my earlier post and wondered: no, the cold didn't get worse, nor was there a replay of 2005, thank goodness.)

Since our same group of musicians and hazzanim have been doing this for years now, we didn't need much rehearsal time. I spent an hour with one group (the Smaller Church Ensemble), and a few days later headed over to the Massive Church to practice with that band. I entered by the side door, awash in memories of racing through it at 8:59AM in order to join the choir for "Mah Tovu" at 9:00, and ran into the rabbinic intern. He seemed anxious to leave. "How was your rehearsal?" I asked.

"Nothing happened," he laughed, and darted off.

The church interior looked much the same as I remembered, but a lot cleaner. Great chandeliers hung from the ceiling, their lights warming domes, vaulted arches, and vast eggshell walls adorned with gilt quotes about God and love. (If you squinted, you might not even notice the tiny New Testament attributions right below.) Two large men were hammering nails into a platform situated between the stage-like altar area and the floor, creating a middle ground for service leaders that nether towered over the congregation nor sunk within it. This time, the stage would be reserved for the Ark alone. Off to the side, another group of men with many different accents yelled and gesticulated: the platform wasn't right, Rosh Hashanah was in two days, and there was no time left for a sound check. Meanwhile, the musicians had given up and gone to lunch.

I was quite happy to wait, however, and so the gabbai gave me a tour of this church's version of the Secret Rabbi Room. It was the best ever, an elegant warren of connecting rooms beneath—within—the stage and accessible by recessed mahogany doors on either side. There were two Laura Ashley-decorated bathrooms with gold faucet handles, a central sitting room with a long, upholstered built-in sofa, tiny windows covered by gently ruched chintz curtains (OK, not much of a view, just the alleyway and some garbage cans, but the curtains made up for it) and about 50 closets, each large enough to hold a choir robe. A clever Manhattan realtor could probably get $3,000 month. (Hey, all those closets!)

The band finally returned with their sandwiches but the sound engineer was still moving mikes, so I huddled with the musicians in a corner to run though bits and pieces unamplified. I still had no idea what it would feel like to sing into a mic in front of 2,000 people, and realized I wouldn't know until it happened for real. I walked past the cantor, who was busy analyzing the engineering of a large wooden platform. "Anything you need to tell me?" I asked. (We hadn't exchanged a word about the service since he emailed weeks earlier to let me know where I was leading.) "No," he smiled, and went back to carpentry. Neither he, nor the yelling hammerers, displaced musicians, or bored gabbais, seemed bothered by the chaos, and so neither was I. I walked out into a light rain, decided to play hooky from work for a little while, and treated myself to an omelet at a nearby diner.

(Continued here).

Monday, October 05, 2009

843. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 1

Hello again.

So I did a lot of writing during the month of Elul--just not here. Every single day I reviewed exactly how I missed the mark, and scribbled answers with a big, thick green pen into an actual paper-based notebook. It was exhausting, even more so for my brain and heart than my out-of-practice right hand (typing is a lot easier than the old-fashioned method). The answers, not all bad, weren't news. Not by a long shot. I'm glad I did it--I needed to do it--and it helped me understand the holidays that followed. I learned and grew. But Elul wasn't much fun, most of the time.

Now I need to remind myself that writing really IS fun (especially since I'm taking another writing workshop that begins next week).

Rosh Hashanah already feels like it took place in some distant era, but it was just two weeks ago. Once again we were back at the Very Large and Impressively Ornate Former Christian Scientist Church, where I helped lead on the first day. I was last there in 2003, sitting in the balcony with the choir listening to a rabbinic student sing morning blessings with perfect calm and joy, and going home later to try and duplicate the melody and wonder idly what it might feel like to stand in that spot. And on the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year, I got my chance.

(Continued here.)