Monday, November 30, 2009

867. A new person

Mazal Tov to the Velveteen Rabbi family on the arrival of their son, Andrew Wynn Zuckerman! May he grow up healthy and happy in a world filled with peace, where everyone has the freedom to write in blogs and say, think, and believe however they wish.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

866. Spoken

OK, enough about controversial topics for the time being. Last week, thanks to a link to this post included in my daily Google alert for the word "Judaism" (more some other time about that treasure trove of an email), I discovered this wonderful site:

Hebrew Audio Bible

They're spoken audio files of the entire Tanakh, recorded many years ago by Abraham Shmuelof, who died in 1994. He had a fascinating life—born in Jerusalem, fought with Menachem Begin in the Irgun, taken prisoner of war in 1941, converted to Catholicism, became a Benedictine monk in 1948. He subsequently joined the Greek Catholic Church, and was ordained as a priest in 1956. He may have changed religions but never lost his passion for Hebrew language and liturgy, as proven by these recordings.

I had heard some of them before on the Mechon-Mamre site, but didn't pay much attention—they were just some old guy speaking Hebrew, a diversion from the cool online tikkun. Revisiting these MP3s on the easier-to-navigate Audio Bible site, I discovered how conversational and nuanced this reading is—he understands every word and so tells the story, rather than simply reciting it. There's something uncanny about ancient Hebrew sounding so much like a living language; it's beautiful and even chilling in spots. I listened to the section I chanted last week and came away with a new understanding of how to phrase (even though the trop does most of that on its own) and convey the gravity and elegance of these words.

I can't wait for the weather to get a little warmer so I can bring up the site on my iPod, put on headphones, and take a long walk in the park as the Torah resonates in my ears.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

865. A shanda

This is old news now (a whole week) but worth spreading at any time. A woman was detained (not arrested, but taken to a police station for questioning) at the Kotel for wearing a tallit. I respect the fact that some find it offensive to see a woman in a tallit, and understand the need for both single-sex and egalitarian areas of the Wall. More than that, however, I support the right of everyone to pray as they wish in a public place—especially one that represents the strength and unity of the Jewish people. This group of women, which happened to include some of my dear friends and teachers, did not behave disruptively, go into the men's section, or dress immodestly. Their tallitot were under their coats so as not to attract attention. (Which is sad. I'm proud when I wear a tallit, for the heritage it signifies, the visible connection to other Jews. You'd think that in Israel, of all places—a country whose flag is a tallit—this symbol could represent and be embraced by all, not just half the population.)

What right does anyone have, especially in a democracy, to violently disrupt peaceful, heartfelt prayer because it doesn't fit one particular interpretation of what prayer should be? What right did men have to enter the women's section if women aren't allowed to enter the men's section? How can I consider Israel my home if Israel limits my ability to observe the religion that makes it my home? In the words of Nofrat Frenkel, the woman who was detained, from this article in the Forward:

"The morning of Rosh Hodesh Kislev, November 18, was a cold Jerusalem morning. We stood, 42 Women of the Wall, and prayed in the women’s section. Our tallitot were hidden under our coats; the sefer Torah was in its regular bag. There was no booing, no pushing, no shouting. We were surprised that our service passed off without any disturbance, and we thought that, perhaps, they had already become accustomed to our presence and that we could even read from the Torah, opposite the stones of the Kotel. Then, just moments after we had removed the sefer Torah from its bag, two men entered the women’s section and began abusing us. All we wanted was to conclude our prayers in peace, so we decided to forgo the Torah reading there and go, as on every other Rosh Hodesh, to read the Torah at the alternative site. As we were exiting with me carrying the Torah, a policeman met us and began forcefully pushing me toward the nearby police station. Our pleas and explanations that we were on our way to the alternative site were of no use. I was transferred for questioning to the station at David’s Citadel. All I had on me was my tallit, my siddur and a sefer Torah.

In my interrogation, I was asked why I was praying with a tallit when I knew that this was against the Law of the Holy Places. I am an Israel Defense Forces officer, a law-abiding citizen, a volunteer for the Civil Guard — I have never incurred even a parking fine — and the idea of having broken the law was most trying. Nevertheless, I cannot allow my basic right to freedom of religious worship to be trampled because of a court ruling given years ago.

It is most doubtful that this ruling would be accepted today. In the wake of the Conservative and Reform movements, during the past 10 years, people in the Orthodox world have come to understand that the woman’s place is no longer restricted to the kitchen. Feminist Orthodox women are demanding to take an active part in Jewish life. Egalitarian Orthodox synagogues, in which women don tallitot and lead services, are popping up like mushrooms after rain. The “public’s sensitivity” has changed.

The Kotel belongs to all the people of Israel. The Kotel is not a Haredi synagogue, and the Women of the Wall will not allow it to become such."

Here are some other articles and commentary about the incident:

Woman wearing talit at Kotel detained (The Jerusalem Post)

A Wall For Us All (Forward editorial)

Police arrest woman for wearing prayer shawl at Western Wall (Ha'aretz)

Tallits bring out the worst in people (

Wear a Tallit... Go to Jail! (an excellent blog post by a rabbi about why it's really halakhically OK for women to wear tallitot)

864. Fitting in (part 2)

(And finally, continued from here, the rest of my thoughts about that Shabbat talk from a week and a half ago.)

The speaker's conclusion: These two areas, education and outreach, must become a priority if liberal Judaism (meaning, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and all other non-Orthodox streams) is to flourish. If we fail at these tasks, we'll disappear. I agree, to an extent. Yes, Hebrew literacy is necessary. But learning for its own sake won't keep us alive; for that, we need parents and communities to teach and model a love of Judaism. Many liberal families do this very, very well, even if their kids don't learn Talmud; conversely, many Orthodox kids are crushed by the weight of study and traditions that leave no room for sunlight or exploring one's own individuality. No single approach is without its problems.

Still, suggested the rabbi, whether Jewish knowledge proves helpful later in life, or you discover you hate it, you can't rebel against if you don't first know it. And the ability to rebel is a good thing—better than complacency based on ignorance. True, but this is a risky approach. Some (like me) become so alienated by having Jewish education forced down their throats by rote that they stay away for decades. Perhaps I would have felt differently if my parents had been religiously enthused—but they were disillusioned as well, so we went through the motions of observance without any passion. Identifying with a religion that none of my role models could get excited about made me feel like a hypocrite, and I know I'm not the only one with this problem. Yes, in the non-Orthodox world these days there are new independent minyanim and vibrant communities (like my synagogue) to re-kindle that excitement—but we're still a minority.

This is not to say that non-Orthodox men and women don't live great Jewish lives through mitzvot, tikkun olam, etc., but we tend not to do so out of a sense of religious obligation. Which led to the speaker's other main point. For the Orthodox, mitzvot are a matter of requirement. The rest of us, he postulated, tend to see Judaism as a choice. We identify more strongly with the greater community than with the smaller subset of our religious group. We're afraid we'll lose touch with the world if, for example, we avoid the computer on Shabbat. We choose to follow the rules that are relevant to our own lives.

I have mixed feelings about this point, too. Judaism is a religion of interpretation and balance. I feel obligated to follow some of the rules, but also to respect my role as a person living in the the world today. Lekh lekha, "go to yourself," can also mean "go to the truest part of yourself." I am a woman of the 21st century; to follow halakha without taking that into consideration is also a kind of disrespect of myself and by extension, of God, in Whose image I'm created. That said, I do feel this tension—it's hard to figure out where choice ends and obligation begins. The liberal Jewish community needs to discover a better way to do that dance or else we'll continue to confuse and alienate those who try to join us.

863. Sunrise

One last piece written in class, about darkness and sunrise:

In college I was a painting major, which meant that I had to fit dozens of hours each week of creating art into a week that already contained dozens of hours of reading the Iliad and contemplating Medieval economics. The best solution I could find was to paint at night, all night, but I hated the smell of turpentine in a tiny, airless studio. So, instead, I moved outside to the lawn in front of my dorm. My friends thought I was clever and eccentric; my teachers, nuts; and I had no idea what I thought because I was too tired. I could see neither my subjects, usually some trees, nor the canvas in front of me, but was determined to draw every possible spark of ambient light into my eyes and then squeeze them back out onto the canvas. I put on headphones and blasted Bach motets into my ears in hopes that soaring voices and geometric harmonies would somehow bounce like sonar off the strange, hulking shapes in front of me and define new shapes through the paint at the end of my brush. I would work until dawn, when light began to seep onto the grass, and then discover how utterly wrong, or completely right, I was about the mirror of creation on my canvas.

862. In between

Another short piece written in class about the state of being in between:


The last of my boxes was dragged out to the street and hoisted into a van by a large moving man, who then slammed shut the back doors.

"See you there," he yelled as he climbed into the front seat next to an even larger moving man.

I watched the truck drive away, grabbed my knapsack and the carrier with my cat, and hailed a cab. I could have taken the subway—I was going only a few stops from Queens to Manhattan—but the occasion seemed to demand a grander entrance.

There was no traffic over the Triboro Bridge. All the landmarks I used to see from my bedroom window—the Citicorp building, the big red, flashing "History Channel" sign—moved from one side of my sight to the other. We reached my new building and life, and I took the elevator up to my apartment. I had no furniture yet, so sat in sunlight on the newly-finished wood floor and waited.

A half-hour passed, then another. Everything I owned, as well as everything my parents had owned that ended up in my closets after they died, and a lot of stuff their parents owned, as well, were in a truck somewhere between Queens and Manhattan, and I didn't know where. Another hour passed. The sun began to set; it was cold on the floor. The cat and I wondered what it might feel like in this new life, alone by choice, without any reminders of the memories we thought we could rely on. It was terrifying, yet oddly freeing.

Finally, an hour later, there was a knock on my door. "Sorry, we stopped for a burger," said the big moving man sheepishly. I was almost sad to see him, along with the weight of my life behind him in the van.

861. Names

I really will finish this thought soon. Pre-Thanksgiving last-minute client craziness gets worse every year. Such is life; I am grateful for having work at all, so no complaints. Meanwhile, here's a short piece I wrote last night at class, where we continue to study texts about the time in between, twilight, bein ha-sh'mashot. (Names have been changed to protect the, er, anonymous.)

This morning I chanted Torah at my synagogue's minyan, and came home to a package from my nephew in California. Bruce is 10 years older than me; my half brother, his father, was 35 years older. My father was very, very old, even when I was a little baby. My brother died earlier this year and Bruce, when he cleaned out his dad's house, found a box filled with dusty papers. Inside one envelope was a cracked, black leather wallet sealed with a snap. Inside that were yellowed, onionskin pages folded in thirds, dated 1936 and crowned with a photo of my father looking like a sly Cary Grant. At the top, one signature with my father's original name, Daniel [Original last name]. On the back, a typed declaration: "This is to certify that the name of this person is now 'Daniel [New last name].'" Below that, he signed his new name.

I always knew my father had changed his name, but everyone in my family, my brother included, disagreed about when. At the immigration office? Five years after he arrived? All my brother remembered was that he was born with one name, and then it became another.

I always wondered what my father would think of my chanting Torah, an unimaginable thing for a woman to do in his world. Perhaps he would be proud but confused, as if he found out I was really from Mars, some kind of alien daughter. He would love me just the same, but be wary. As I looked at those two signatures, one from the old world and the other from the new, and imagined a handsome man with slicked-back hair and a snazzy mustache, I knew he would appreciate my daring with the same spirit as his own when he decided to break from the past and take this new name, my name.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

860. Fitting in (part 1)

It was a lovely, busy Shabbat, and would have been even more jam-packed (an afternoon teaching; a Minha bar mitzvah; food) if if I hadn't fallen asleep on the sofa after lunch. But I had a great nap, in retrospect the perfect way to spend a cold, rainy afternoon. Now I'm trying to wake up in time to head off to a friend's very cool birthday party at a museum. Before that, some thoughts about the topic of last night's community dinner at my synagogue. A smart and funny rabbi risked a riot (well, not really, but he discussed some things we usually avoid like the plague) by broaching the subject of what the Orthodox do better than most other Jews. For example: education. Those with a yeshiva background are well-versed in classic texts. Those in recovery from the travesty of afternoon Hebrew school can barely name five important Jewish books (a question that yields depressing answers from this rabbi's non-Orthodox students). Also, outreach. Chabad is everywhere to help the unaffiliated become part of a community. Where are representatives of other denominations? One might think that those streams aren't interested in retaining their disaffected members, especially on college campuses. (And I remember venturing into my college's Kosher Kitchen years ago to find a room filled with people in kippot and payeses who eyed me with suspicion. I left quickly and never returned. I know things have changed a great deal since then, but it's still easier to find like-minded Jewish souls in many cities and universities if you're Orthodox.)

(To be continued.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

859. Watch a Torah being written online...

... it's very cool:

I've been meaning to post this for awhile. What better image to think about right before Shabbat begins?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

858. Religious

Here's something I've been meaning to write about for months... years. I would like to reclaim the the word "religious." A recent article in The Forward got to the gist of the problem:

"... Consciously or unconsciously, liberal Jews often invoke frames that implicitly establish Orthodox Judaism as normative and set up their own forms of Judaism in comparison with Orthodoxy.

The remedy is clear: For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.

This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as 'more religious' or 'more observant,' we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism."

— Ben Dreyfus, "Reframing Liberal Judaism."

Occasionally I go on dates with nice Jewish guys of the liberal persuasion. (Yes, I haven't given up yet.) We generally have an awkward phone conversation beforehand, during which we attempt to be casual as well as deep. At some point we get to hobbies: "So, what do you like to do for fun?" He: [generally sports or travel or tropical fish, or something else macho but sensitive]. Me: "I love to sing." Oh, where? "I was in a chorus for many years, but these days I mostly sing at my synagogue." (Well, what should I do, lie? "I front a neo-punk band in the East Village." I'd be unmasked the minute we met and he saw I didn't have pink hair.)

"A synagogue? Wow, that's interesting." Sometimes the conversation is great after that; we discuss shared interests in Judaism and music, and agree to meet for a drink. More often, however, there's a big pause followed by admissions of guilt: "Are you a cantor? Because I'm not Orthodox." [Hello, if I were an Orthodox woman, I would not be a cantor.] Or, "I haven't gone to services in years, but am very pro-Israel." Or, "Do you eat meat out? I used to date someone who kept kosher, it wasn't a problem." Or, most frequently: "Oh... are you religious?"

I never use that minefield of a word to describe myself. "I observe holidays and love to go to services," I answer. "But I'm happy to meet someone who observes differently than I do." That usually doesn't satisfy the "religious" questioner, however, who applies this label to anyone who attends services on a regular basis and therefore must be a) a professional clergyperson, b) Orthodox, c) Republican, or d) weird. Prejudices vary, but rarely does someone who resembles me fit into his definition of the word. Those conversations usually do not end well. In one case the guy refused to believe I wasn't Orthodox; in another, I was treated to a long complaint about his traditionally observant ex-girlfriend.

Yes, it's for the best that I can weed out these potential disasters during the first phone call. Still, I wish I could use "religious" to mean what it really does, according to Webster's: "manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity." I do believe in God; I do manifest that devotion. My way of doing so is no better or worse, authentic or fake, than that of someone who identifies with any other stream of Judaism. There's no absolute scale of such things, like a credit score. I wish people would stop ascribing the word "religious" to the imaginary top of this non-existent hierarchy.

857. Excerpt

This past week I've been working on an essay for my writing class. (Overdue. But almost done, honestly.) Here's a short excerpt:


For most of my life, I had no idea how mumbling archaic phrases constituted communication with God. When I was a child my father did this three times a day, every day, swaying back and forth in front of the bedroom window wrapped in tallit and tefillin, his only other hobby aside from yelling and watching "Bonanza." Based upon this observation, I concluded that praying was the job of adults, or maybe just old men. In Hebrew school we never discussed who God was, or why we were supposed to talk to Him, but did learn that God expected us to cross lowercase t's only halfway through so they wouldn't resemble a symbol that was bad for the Jews, and also to feed the goldfish matzah meal during Passover. After my mother explained that this would kill Goldie, The Eternal fell greatly in my esteem. He seemed petty and not very nice, and I became wary of anyone who claimed God was an OK guy. My father never explained why he prayed so much, nor did I ask, but whenever he screamed at my mother or slammed doors and stormed out of the house, he reminded me more and more of the crabby old God who was mean to my fish.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

856. Pathetique

Last week I watched a video compilation of photos of a friend's family. The soundtrack was piano music—her mother had been a piano teacher—and after a few seconds I got very flustered. The music was like Cher to Nicholas Cage in "Moonstruck": "Snap out of it!" (followed by a slap across the face). So I stopped watching, and just listened. It was Beethoven's "Pathetique" and "Appassionata" sonatas, to which I'd listened for hours on end as a teenager. The record—midnight blue sleeve featuring a man in a tux disappearing into fog—had been filed in the big living room stereo cabinet since I was a baby, but I became a little obsessed with it in junior high. Every day when I got home from school I'd choose between that and Mendelssohn's violin concerto (b/w Tchaikovsky's), and sprawl out on the gold carpet with the music and my math homework. I think those pieces captivated me because they were conversational in structure, a call and response of melodies, volumes, and emotions. I could imagine myself on one end of the discussion, engaging with the tunes like a close friend as they tried to set the cacophony of my own adolescence into some kind of tonal order.

I hadn't heard the "Pathetique" in years—decades—but after downloading it from iTunes last week, I realized I could sing the whole thing back, note for note (well, if people could sing in 10-part chords). I also had a feeling that other music was also hibernating in my brain, still waiting for a nudge. The "Pathetique" feels like a puzzle piece that was lost and forgotten under the sofa—now something is complete, although I'm not sure what. It may have to do with the fact that it's in the slightly agitated key of C minor. Almost all the music at my synagogue is in C major, a close and calmer cousin:

"Beethoven in C minor has come to symbolize his artistic character. In every case, it reveals Beethoven as Hero. C minor does not show Beethoven at his most subtle, but it does give him to us in his most extrovert form, where he seems to be most impatient of any compromise."
Wikipedia, Beethoven and C minor

(Describing how key signatures reflect mood is a nearly impossible task—I read a book review recently that used the phrase "ekphrastic nightmare." But, like the subtleties of body language, they really do.) Each week on Shabbat I listen for hours as C major helps us organize the discordant messiness of life. Beethoven's key is the same dialect, but with the added message of Lekh Lekha: go! take a chance! Hearing the piano concerto again reminded me that I was once a teenager up for anything, and that person was not as far away as I might think.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

855. Angel

This past Shabbat I read part of Parashat Vayera, including the Rosh Hashanah section where Hagar and Ishmael are banished to the wilderness. During the holiday I generally follow along in English (by the time we get to the Torah service, I'm usually too out of it from having led Shaharit to pay attention any other way), so never noticed the Hebrew pun in Genesis 21:17:

Vayishma Elohim et-kol hana'ar vayikra mal'ach Elohim el-Hagar min-hashamayim vayomer lah mah-lach Hagar al-tire'i ki-shama Elohim el-kol hana'ar ba'asher hu-sham.

God heard the boy weeping. God's angel called Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'What's the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid. God has heard the boy's voice there where he is.

"Mal'ach Elohim": "God's angel." "Mah-lach Hagar": "What's the matter, Hagar?" Surely no coincidence, and I'm also certain there must be volumes of commentary about these two words. I found one online that interprets the colloquial tone of "Mah-lach" as a reminder to take stock at the new year of what's the matter in our own lives that might prevent us from becoming like a "mal'ach." In her d'var Torah this week the rabbi considered the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, as Avram's re-enactment of the trauma of his own youth as destroyer of his father's idols and subsequent banishment. I wonder—does the repeated "mal'ach" serve a similar purpose, asking us find a connection between the pain of Ishmael at that moment, and the pain his ancestors descendants [corrected by aa., 2/13] will experience as they live in hostility with other nations? Or, an interpretation I prefer but probably makes no sense:

"God's angel called Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'Angel Hagar!'"

Maybe the first "malach" is the same as the second, and is God's way of reminding the mother of Ishmael that she's as close to God as an angel and so her son is truly blessed. Hagar gets a raw deal; it felt good to think of this version as I chanted her name.

Friday, November 06, 2009

854. Reminder

A wonderful discussion thread of readers' comments on the NY Times blog about the meaning of life and death:

Is That All There Is?

This page reminded me that we are all philosophers, even if we don't call ourselves by that name, and everyone has something valuable to teach. And nudged me to be grateful once again this morning.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

853. Rosh Hashanah 5770, part 6

(Yes, this has been the slowest Yamim Nora'im saga ever. As I was saying, continued from here:)

Mr. Loud and Ms. Louder were just a little annoying, at first. I could hear every note they sang, flat and half a second before I did, but figured they'd settle into a comfortable volume and also become aware of how distracting they were. It didn't happen; as their kavannah grew, their amplification followed close by. I was briefly proud of my ability as a shaliah to incite such levels of spiritual ecstasy. Then I realized they couldn't hear me at all, and I couldn't, either. Their singing quickly became like mosquitoes buzzing in my ears, drowning out my own awareness of any sounds I made.

I began to panic. I didn't have many options. I couldn't leave the bima and walk to the front row to tell them to shut up; public scolding is a bad example of hakhnasat orhim, shalom bayit, and all those other positive qualities I tried to embody as I stood before my fellow congregants. I could cup my ear to try to hear my own voice, but this also looked bad—and I needed both hands to hold the mahzor.

I could ask someone else to scold them. This seemed the best, and only, solution. The guitarist was right behind me, and during the Shema I turned around and hoped she could read lips. "Please tell the front row to be quiet," I mumbled.

"I can't leave!" she whispered back, shocked. Which was true; she had to play again in about 12 seconds.

I was out of ideas. I turned back to the bima and asked God to forgive me for hating those two nice people. It wasn't their fault; they meant well. (Although they had been given previous, gentle admonitions in the past. But today they were praying harder than ever, and forgot.) I encouraged God to bestow them immediately with the gift of pitch, or laryngitis.

We reached the piyyut L'el Orekh Din, and I turned my back on the congregation to face the open Ark. For the first time that morning I could take a deep, private breath and, no longer in the path of other voices, could hear my own. I looked at the words I was singing, about judgment, focus, and mercy, and realized I was being pretty useless as a messenger. Whether or not God judges me, I have no idea. But I judge myself, and knew that I could not bear to waste this gift and responsiblity of a few hours a year when voices follow and blend into mine with energy that bounces off and through me like an electric current.

I turned around to face the congregation and begin the Uvekhen. I waited for sounds from the first row, but could hear only my own. I looked up and saw Mr. Loud and Ms. Louder listening for the first time that morning, and so I did the same.

(Next, eventually: Yom Kippur.)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

852. The route to Whole Foods

The usual start of my work day entails a 10-second commute to the office (also known as the front of the kitchen), followed by the Times online, blogs, coffee, a bagel. Then I'm ready to face the world, more or less. Today I added something new to the routine, a few minutes of writing. Later on I'll engage in another radical act and take a break in the middle of the day to walk east to the local high school and vote (not that it will make much difference, but I need to do it just the same). Then I'll go some more blocks to Whole Foods, my favorite store ever, although I'm as far from a foodie as my cats are from cooking dinner, the most likely scenario for a homemade meal around here. (Yes, I'm proud to be a slothful, ordering-out kind of New Yorker.)

And once again, I'll experience a kind of déjà vu. Seduced by signs that said "Borders Books coming soon!" I began to wander these streets last year out of curiosity when the Whole Foods, as well as an expansive, mall-like block of stores, started to go up. (No Borders has appeared, but I'm patient.) The mall took the place of a tired supermarket and a diner; with a few exceptions, those blocks were like a dustbowl in the middle of the Upper West Side. Now it's a new neighborhood, if somewhat pre-fab, and feels very different.

But the déjà vu wasn't because of my previous trips. The streets over there are wide, the buildings short, unlike the tall, shadowed, narrow blocks near my apartment. You can even see the sky. Not far from Whole Foods is a little police station and a public library in 50s-style white brick, low-ceilinged warrens of fluorescent lights with big windows framed by skinny poplar trees. Behind the police station, a public playground with monkey bars, squealing kids, senior citizens playing chess. The area is old, new, unplanned, messy, and alive, and reminds me of Queens. I grew up in a 6-story red brick building; across the street were wooden single-family homes with unkempt yards where I'd play after school. The massive Skyline Towers a few blocks away could house an entire city, and the between from their canyons knocked the books out of my hands every time I went to visit my wealthier friends. Our own apartment was modern and cheap, all the doors hollow (I was amazed when I moved to Manhattan and discovered that my bedroom could be sealed off and soundproofed with a solid slab of wood). The architecture and characters are different, but something about the walk to Whole Foods creates the same echo in my bones as the songs of birds who lived in the tallest tree in the world, which happened to be right outside my 4th floor window when I was a kid.

Monday, November 02, 2009

851. Art

(This past Shabbat, the rabbi spoke about how the second word of the name of last week's parasha, Lekh Lekha—"Go, go to yourself"—gets all the attention. Thousand of paragraphs ponder the question of what "to yourself" really means—but that first word, "go," is a thorny one. We're good at avoiding "lekh;" we procrastinate, make excuses. This week, suggested the rabbi, "lekh." Follow Avram's lead and just Go. Do something you know you should, but haven't. Once again, as eleven years ago on the weekend of this same parasha, he was talking to me. There are at least three Really Big Things on my "lekh" list, including writing here and elsewhere—so in the spirit, if not the letter, of NaBloPoMo, I return to "lekh" this blog. Hopefully more often.)

Speaking of two-word names, the second part of mine has seen more action than usual. I've been thinking about making some personal art for first time in about—yikes—20 years. Last week I wandered through the Jewish Museum's "Reinventing Ritual" exhibit, getting inspired by interactive omer calendars and tiny bits of Torah literally prepared for ingestion. And yesterday morning I went to a wonderful talk by an artist and rabbi at the Museum of Biblical Art about ritual objects and sacred space. Judaism emphasizes the holiness of time, but we spend all our time in space—so that aspect of existence deserves honor, as well. But there's the whole second commandment thing, observed the artist, so some believe that "Jewish art" should stick to a prescribed set of boundaries lest we enter idol territory. Our ritual objects and prayer spaces are often blandly safe and clichéd as a result, which does no honor to the limitless beauty of Jewish concepts. I agree; I think God wants us to make art as well as pray in the spirit of radical amazement.

And yesterday afternoon, I got to experience a very different sort of sacred space than my usual venue. A friend had a party at her church, located in a tiny Queens storefront right under the el. But it could have been a castle, love transforming the room into a place of precious beauty. There were gospel singers, and the rich texture of an interfaith family so solid that only we foreigners from Manhattan were crass enough to notice. After a while the sound of the trains rumbling overhead began to remind me of the airplanes that crisscrossed the sky every few minutes above the apartment where I grew up, and I forgot how much I hated to cross that river. I felt safe and at home in a room more glorious in its humility than any grand sanctuary.