Thursday, December 31, 2009

875. Yiddish

Yesterday I got a DVD in the mail from my nephew in California, a video from 2000 of my sister-in-law z"l starring in as Dorothy in her retirement community's theatrical production of "The Wizard of Oz"—in Yiddish. She was quite a ham (that doesn't sound quite right in this context, but it's true). It was, shall we say, a colorful amateur event, but she and her friends were definitely pros at Yiddish. I felt like I understood most of it even though I didn't, a kind of gut comprehension without grammar or vocabulary. The sounds were comfortable in my ears. When I was very little, my parents used to speak (mostly yell) Yiddish above me, literally, as if I were a small boat under a big bridge of loud language that acted as both detour and shelter. I never cared to understand, nor did they offer to teach; Yiddish was a secret code of old people, not applicable in any way to my life. In recent years I've tried to get excited by the current Yiddish renaissance, a language and culture now very cool—but it's been hard to shake those old misconceptions. I can't see myself speaking Yiddish because I can't imagine living my parents' lives, and the two seem inextricably entwined.

But watching my sister-in-law sing with such Bronx-inflected joy—as if the very sound of each word transported her back to the happiest of childhood times—I was jealous that the language is mine in sensation only, not tachlis. Still, this is better than nothing. Chanting Torah seems to work the same way. I understand only a small fraction of the words, but the minute I learned how to do it, I knew it was my language long ago. I just had to wait for the right time to dig it out and start using it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

874. Paranoia

Amazing how quickly time passes when you're not doing anything. Well, that's not exactly true; I managed to tackle a number of overdue projects, but they're just ploys to avoid the big one or two that perennially float to the top of my "to do" list. I still have a few days left before real life resumes on Monday, however—I just need to begin one of the Big Items and I'll feel marginally victorious. ("It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it." —Pirkei Avot.)

My not doing much also consisted of an epic battle with the cable company. If I were paranoid, I'd be sure these modern robber barons had it out for me because I downgraded my TV service last week. But I'm not, so must conclude that incompetence is why my internet connection went down twice in two days, each instance blamed on my faulty equipment but then revealed to be the cable co.'s fault. After the first time, I wasted three hours shlepping back and forth to their office (a place as grim as one of the pits of Hell) for a new modem, which didn't work when I hooked it up. After the second, I yelled for many minutes at a telephone support person who insisted that I must be mistaken, her computer said I was online. The drama culminated when a tech person knocked on my door, unannounced, at 8AM this morning to "fix" the "problem." No one had told him that the connection was already up and running.

So I spent most of the last few days alternately trying not to scream, berating myself for getting annoyed at this relatively tiny blip in the rhythm of life, and laughing at the absurdity of it all. Then I spent the evening flipping through millions of computer-based TV shows, my brain atrophying with each passing minute. I need to put the experience in a larger context. Chaos (tohu vavohu) preceded creation; maybe these odd few days were a necessary preamble to creativity about to burst forth. And if they weren't, I can still watch all ten streaming seasons of "Law and Order: SVU" in one marathon sitting and then wait for my brain to simply overload and reboot.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

873. Happy Secular Gregorian!

A few days early (a true miracle), here's the holiday card I just sent to a bunch of family, friends, and colleagues. I celebrate the end of every year by pairing a favorite photo with a quote. This year's image is from my July Cape Cod vacation, accompanied by the words of John Ruskin:

"Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

Wishing all who read this a new decade of clearing clouds, and the most interesting kinds of weather in 2010.

Monday, December 28, 2009

872. "All fat is the Lord's"

It must be true (and therefore I don't feel so guilty about eating dessert) because it says so in Lev. 3:16, as my good friend Chevrutablogger pointed out—and she should know, because she just started a wonderful new blog about Jewish food, "jew makes food". I highly recommend checking it out and following her ongoing adventures in cooking, knishes, schmaltz, and other fun topics.

871. Parashat Vayigash and cable TV

I'm not a big fan of change, much as I appreciate the need for it in my life. For the past 12 years I've had a ridiculously good deal with cable TV; my building bought it in bulk, folding the cost into my maintenance. So I essentially got a zillion channels for free. But there were many tenants who wanted neither cable nor to subsidize those who did. This didn't dissuade the co-op board, however, since the deal was advantageous with respect to some archaic tax laws.

Then, last year, the archaic laws were repealed, a good thing overall, but not with respect to cable. My free ride was over. I surely can't afford to pay actual money for the kind of TV to which I've become accustomed. Truth is, I watch very little, mostly on broadcast channels, and use those other thousand to extend procrastination and fuel boredom until I get so annoyed with myself that I have to do the thing I was avoiding.

So on Thursday morning, with mixed feelings but knowing I was doing right by my bank balance, I lugged the fancy, LED-festooned box back to the cable TV office and opted instead for the minimum amount of service possible by plugging the cable directly into my TV. Conveniently, last week I bought wires to attach my laptop to my TV (I'm a gadget freak, within the confines of my tightwad inclinations). So now I can still watch, via Boxee, Hulu, and Netflix, on a nice, shiny 32" screen, much of what was on those million channels. (Some day soon more people will watch like this, and cable companies will be unmasked for the robber barons they really are.)

Back to change. I was alarmed at how unsettled I felt about this whole thing. It brought back memories of that first rush when hooking up cable years ago in Queens; I took the day off work and spent hours flipping back and forth between MTV and CNN, marveling at the modernity of it all. Last week I bored all my friends with my tale of cable woe. Even though I now have access to more programs than ever before, I didn't want to get used to a different, less spontaneous routine. Although I never watched those thousands of home decorating and bizarre reality shows, I still wanted to know they were there, symbols of comfortable middle-classness. Abandoning them felt like failure, which I know makes no sense at all.

After a few days fiddling with the new setup, I now feel less a cheapskate and more a high-tech pioneer. The newness is fun. I thought of this on Shabbat, when the rabbi spoke about the phrase "fertile and increase greatly" as it appears in the last line of Parashat Vayigash:

"Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly." (Genesis 47:27)

She compared this to other "fertile and increase greatly" instances in the Torah. In most, producing offspring is paired with the idea of acquiring land or conquering a people or place. In one notable case it isn't—when God predicts the future of Ishmael, an outsider, an "other". I'm greatly simplifying the rabbi's point, but what I took away was that being out of step with a dominant practice—in this case, following literally the commandment to have children, especially lots of them—can make us feel like "other" as well, without rights to mastery or dominion. But we need to remember that there can be other interpretations of "fertile": giving birth to new ideas, for example, or healing and repairing old ones.

It seem sacrilegious to compare Torah with cable TV, but I was feeling just this—I am a lesser person for not having the same cable channels as the rest of the world. But there are other interpretations of "a million channels": mine happen to be on the computer. Turning it around (“There are seventy faces to the Torah: Turn it around and around, for everything is in it.” —Bamidbar Rabba 13:15), I thought about other parts of my life where I'm reluctant to look beyond the p'shat, the literal, majority view. Sometimes it's easier to follow the crowd, even when the cost is too high in the long run. I guess I should be grateful to my robber-baron cable company for their role in this little epiphany.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

870. Caught up

For the time being. I don't even have a Torah portion to learn; no upcoming chanting on the horizon. My challenge now is to take advantage of this open space—work on projects I've put off for too long, hang out with friends, go to the gym, refrain from panicking about work that hasn't yet materialized (but will; it always does, somehow), do... nothing.

I spent some of that nothing time last night figuring out how to hook up my laptop to my TV. It worked, which means that when my three students come here to learn trope in preparation for their group Bat Torah this spring, we can all be in the same room—including the one who's in Brazil for four months, joining us via Skype. The newest technology meets the oldest. Maybe that's why the Masoretes left off all the vowels; they're too small to be seen by a webcam.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

869. The right place

Last Shabbat morning I chanted the maftir (extra section specific to the holiday), this week about the offerings at the Tabernacle (a usual collection of rams, lambs, goats, silver, etc.). The first batch, read on the first day of Hanukkah, was from Nachshon ben Aminadav, the same Nachshon who made the first leap into the about-to-part Sea of Reeds. Inaugurating that journey certainly merits the honor of being at the front of the line.

One of the most stressful parts of Torah reading for me has been simply finding my place within a forest of letters on tall, narrow parchment cliffs. Generally, the previous reader places the yad above the place where he or she left off, but it tends to roll away by the time I step over to the bima (and if not then, definitely when the scroll is closed as the person having the aliyah says the blessing). Ideally, I will have already glanced at the beginning of my portion and seared its position into my brain, so when the sefer Torah re-opens my eyes can zoom to the right place. But life is rarely ideal. More often, long seconds tick by as I scan the rolling ocean of letters in search of the particular one that needs to keep me afloat; a rabbi or two will jump in if I begin to sink. We always find it, and I've learned not to panic or tell myself, "Hey, you've looked at those words A MILLION TIMES already. They are right in front of you now, fool," because I've seen the Torah reading word-search dilemma affect even those who can recite the whole Torah by memory, like my rabbis.

This week was almost too easy; the maftir came immediately after the priestly blessing, which is written in the scroll in three distinctive, stepped lines (kind of like the traditional hand position used by the priest as he said it). Despite my tendency to sink into self-doubt, I've come to appreciate those moments where it's not so easy, and two, three, four bodies need to pore over the scroll to find the right place. They're demonstrating what we should all do—turn those words over and over until we figure out where and how to begin our own particular portions of life.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

868. Light

Not too many posts here lately, I'm sorry to say--during my woefully tiny daily writing window, I've been busy struggling with a longer piece for my class. For now, wishing everyone a wonderful, renewed and rededicated season of light. Here's how it looked tonight from my window, with parts of Manhattan and Queens in the distance.