Sunday, January 31, 2010

905. Quest

Next week I'm starting to take a class about a most amazing book: Abraham Joshua Heschel's Man's Quest for God. (Between that and my writing class, who knows how I'll find time to write here. But I will, even if I have to cram like I did today in order to achieve my pointless but satisfying goal of one post in honor of every day of January. Which I doubt I'll do again in February. Still, it's a good kind of cramming.) I've had the book for awhile, and have read a few pages here and there, most notably following a suggestion of one of my rabbis. I'm taking the class because I need to figure out prayer a little better. I love to do it, and want to do more of it, but I'm not sure why—and this is confusing to me. If anyone can shed light on the question, it's Heschel.

Even though I haven't yet finished the whole book, I know this passage will remain my favorite, just as it was in 2005:

"To pray is to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. Who is worthy to be present at the constant unfolding of time? Amidst the meditation of mountains, the humility of flowers--wiser than all alphabets--clouds that die constantly for the sake of God's glory, we are hating, hunting, hurting. Suddenly we feel ashamed of our clashes and complaints in the face of the tacit glory in nature. It is so embarrassing to live! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great."

904. Liturgy online

An article about some excellent sites out there to help us learn liturgy (and the author's hopes and plans for one grander than all of these combined):

Niggun Please: Jewish Liturgical Music Database

903. Ready

This past Shabbat the Israelites finally crossed the Sea of Reeds, as I mentioned a few days ago, and at services the rabbi wondered why God made them take the long way around. Forty years is an awfully long detour. Commentators say it's because God wanted us to learn patience—there's a right time for everything, and we can't rush it. We do what we need to do when we're ready to do it, and must grow in order to get there. God knew the Israelites needed forty years before they'd stop kvetching and be ready for a new life.

I'm in the midst of trying to stop procrastinating about a few big things, and so found the rabbi's words comforting. I really want to do those things, and know I will, but sometimes get angry at myself for taking so long. That doesn't help one bit. I need to take a deep breath, remember to like myself, and concentrate on how good I'll feel when I achieve my goal.

But there will come a point when I need to say, this is it: go. Parashat Beshalah teaches us that lesson, as well:

Our sages point to an interesting fact. The miracle didn't happen until the first person jumped into the water. Why didn't G-d perform the miracle before he jumped in? To teach us that at times G-d waits for us to do our part; to take that leap of faith and then G-d does His part.
— From TorahFax

902. Cold January

I walked through Times Square and onto a side street lined with old walkups, trendy Asian restaurants, and some street people with overstuffed shopping bags who looked like costumed extras. A white brick apartment building with a nondescript lobby stood at the end of the block, its lack of character in stark contrast to the garishly lit theaters just a few minutes away. Upstairs the small apartment was packed with loud, laughing people; at first I thought I had the wrong address, and this couldn't possibly be a house of shiva. There were knickknacks from world travels lining the shelves of a big breakfront, and photos of exotic locales on the walls. Even before I met the person who lived here, I could tell that she knew how to have a good life. On the corner of the dining room table sat a photo in a silver frame of a woman with grey, upswept 50s-style hair wearing a smile that at once looked satisfied, patrician, and very kind.

I didn't know the woman who lived here—the knickknack collector and daughter of the smile in the photo—but she recognized me, and we sat down to talk for few minutes before I began the minyan. I lead services occasionally but certainly do not have, or ever pretend to have, the skills of someone in a pastoral role. But although mourners at a minyan know I am not even one ten-thousandth of a rabbi, the fact that I am about to stand in front seems to make me very approachable. I take this inadvertent responsibility seriously; when, right before we begin the service, I ask the son or daughter how she's doing, and the answer comes in waves with silent tears as everyone else is shmoozing and waiting to start, I listen with all my soul for as long as needed. This evening the daughter told me, in the space of just a few minutes, how her mother was "one of the last heroes," a rescued child of the Holocaust who survived even as hundreds of others in the transport did not. How, her family's wealth decimated, her appearance and actions resonated with elegance and refinement even as they struggled in poverty. And how her mother demanded the highest standards from those around her, but always with love and a warm smile. There were no other siblings; the daughter explained that her friends filled this role, and that she wouldn't have survived the ordeal of her mother's illness but for their support. I suddenly thought of myself, and all the losses I experienced at a young age, and realized how fortunate I was to have so many relationships as deep and enduring as the ones this woman described.

There's always time during a shiva minyan to share stories of the deceased, but those friends chose to talk about the daughter instead—how lucky her mother had been to have such a child. Their pride filled the room like sunlight on this freezing January night, helping melt sorrow for a few minutes. The daughter thanked me profusely when it was over, and apologized for being in a hurry—she had to start packing for after shiva ended, when she planned to travel out west and to Europe to heal and continue to live the life of quirky knickknacks and vivid photos that her mother taught her to live.

901. Trees

This weekend I attended not one, but two Tu Bishvat seders. I'd been to just one underwhelming one before this, where I got very bored discussing the mystical meaning of nuts and berries. It didn't make much more sense to me than drawing pictures of trees when I was in Hebrew school in an attempt to celebrate "Jewish Arbor Day." (I never understood the the American version of Arbor Day, either.) Recent additional rainforest- and global warming-related content only helped me feel guiltier.

This weekend I began to understand. While acknowledging that the holiday was extremely minor compared to others in the Jewish year, the rabbi pointed out how important trees were to our story. They're singled out in the story of creation, and figure prominently in the event that got us banished from Eden; we wouldn't be here (theologically speaking) if not for trees. We call the Torah "the Tree of Life" and, as this beautiful article on the Tel Shemesh site explains, they're a recurring motif in the Psalms.

But I'm a city person. There are little, skinny trees all over the streets of New York, and much bigger ones in the park where I love to run—great green umbrellas that completely disguise the fact that I live in the middle of concrete—and some individual trees have been sources of beauty and comfort in my life. I am angered and distressed at all of us and our governments for killing them slowly, and ourselves in the process. But they are not omnipresent for me; I can go days without seeing a tree. (Unlike one of my college roommates, an ornithologist specializing in birds of the Costa Rican rainforest. She spends months at a time living under the canopy, studying the inhabitants of each level of green.) Trees are on my mind but not so much, I am sad to say, in my heart.

In both seders this weekend we focused on the Kabbalistic tradition of the seder that assigns to each ritual food—all fruits of trees—a contemporary interpretation of the "four worlds" (too complex to sum up in a few words, but basically steps in the path that takes us from intention through the physical world of action, and finally to the highest, holiest state where we can realize our potential). First we eat a nut with a hard shell, to symbolize the barriers we tend to place between our true nature and the face we show the world. Next, a food like the apricot with a hard center surrounded by softness, representing the ability to let down our guard and become vulnerable. And finally we eat figs and raisins, fruits that are naked and whole, a symbol of the most honest selves to which we aspire. We had lots to drink at these seders, too (especially on Friday, accompanied by loud and happy zemirot), white wine at first, with drops of red added throughout the evening until the color in the cup was solid and definite.

So maybe trees and I have a relationship like Judy Collins and clouds:

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud's illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all
"Both Sides Now"

But Tu Bishvat this year help me understand the illusion a little better, and become aware of the mirror that trees and their fruit hold up to my own life.

Friday, January 29, 2010

900. You don't look a day over four

Happy anniversary to me! Wow. When I wrote this first post on January 29, 2005, I never imagined I'd last five years, let alone 900 posts. My life isn't very different than it was back then—still waiting for the guy to call, still trying to pay the bills—but my voice is, in terms of writing as well as chanting. I'm slowing finding the courage to say and sing in new, more honest ways, and the seeds of that confidence began here, with some tentative words and no idea where they'd lead. And with the help of a small but steady bunch of readers who (much to my shock) actually want to hear what I have to say. Thank you, and (assuming the Internet still exists) onward to the next five.

And Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

899. By hand

Oy, things are getting busy again, which is good (in terms of my bank account) and bad (in terms of staying sane). Until I have a few more seconds to write, here's a new kind of Torah for the 21st century—and an interesting interpretation of the mitzvah of participating in the writing of a Torah:

People's Torah

From the site:

"Every Torah has exactly 304,805 Hebrew letters, and it is said that each of these letters corresponds to a soul So, too, People's Torah will have 304,805 Hebrew letters. Each letter will correspond to an individual and be rendered from (and image of) that individual's hand."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

898. Moses

Speaking of Parashat Beshalah, Moses is coming down from the mountain tomorrow.

OK, not really. But according to Business Week, Steve Jobs' wildly anticipated announcement this coming Wednesday of a new kind of tablet computer (tablet, get it?) is prophetic and threatens to change life as we know it. Or something like that:

The Tablet as Totem: Is Steve Jobs Our Moses?

I am the world's biggest iPhone fan, and probably more people will be at the foot of our moden-day Sinai, aka the Internet, than at the original one* to hear this announcement, but I don't think we'll be adding a Sixth Book of Jobs any day soon. (And, despite any phenomenal numbers of tablet sales, the symbolism of the apple in the Torah will still be pretty negative. Sorry, Steve.)


* That is, without adding in all those other Jews who ever existed or will exist, traditionally also at the mountain that day (a concept that terrified me as a child—even more crowded than the subway at rush hour!).

897. Freedom

Every Shabbat, at the end of the Torah reading and before the chanting of the haftarah, there's a ritual called hagba (lifting). Someone (preferably someone strong) is given the honor of raising the scroll by its atzei hayim, the poles to which the parchment is attached, and holding it up as high as possible so all members of the congregation can see what's written. If he or she has any energy left (in my synagogue this person is sometimes a woman, of whom I'm in awe; the scroll weighs as much as a small person), she will also turn from side to side so that even those way off to the side can see it. The congregation, in response, lifts the edges of our tallitot to the scroll as we point at it with pinky fingers, a mysterious old tradition (see here).

The best part about hagba, though, is looking at those words. Even if I've just been up at the bima to read them, I'm always amazed by the sight of a whole army of columns waving in the air at perfect attention.

This past Shabbat I looked up at the scroll during the moment of hagba and saw something even better: the future. Next week during Parashat Beshalah we read Shirat Hayam, sung by the Israelites as the waters began to part. Written like bricks in a wall, it's unmistakable amidst the sea of letters in the Sefer Torah:

(From Navigating the Bible.)

Last Shabbat the Israelites were in Egypt. But here was proof, in the wide, unrolled scroll like a flag above our heads, that by next week—each word and person supported by the others—they would find freedom.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

896. Prayer

Here's another interesting link I've been meaning to post since October:

Why Jews Pray

Why does anyone pray? asks Rabbi Ben Greenberg, the author of the article:

"... Prayer is arguably the most fundamental, intimate, and unique element of a life of faith. ... Prayer is the vehicle by which sages of any religion put to words their deepest hopes and visions for all of humanity. "

There is, of course, a rabbinic debate as to why Jews in particular do this:

"... On the one hand, as expressed by Maimonides, praying daily is of fundamental importance. One can speculate a myriad of reasons why this would be so. On the other hand, however, prayer is only necessary when the community is faced with a tremendous difficulty and needs to turn to God and cry out for help in that very moment."

Heschel says it best (from Man in Search of God):

"As a tree is torn from the soil, as a river is separated from its source, the human soul wanes when detached from what is greater than itself. Without the holy, the good turns chaotic; without the good, beauty becomes accidental. ... Unless we aspire to the utmost, we shrink to inferiority. ...

Prayer is our attachment to the utmost."

"These goals are so awesome in scope," concludes Greenberg, "so radical in what they propose, that any adherent to Judaism could easily be left paralyzed into inaction at just pondering the aims of their faith."

I agree—prayer can seem like an overwhelming task. Not even he greatest sages of our tradition could agree on why we do it and Heschel's answer, although brilliant and true, lacks instructions. I think prayer is like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: you know it when you see it (or feel it in your bones or soul). But how exactly does reciting words over and over change into a connection to something great and undefinable?

The first time I really prayed accompanied a moment of great understanding. I'm not sure what came first, the praying or the opening of the door, but do know that I've had few, if any, grand revelations since then. Yet I'm still able to jump into that stream of prayer, the feeling of touching something like the root of a tree or the reason behind beauty. I've never surfed, but imagine that watching the approach of a wave and then diving in and flying above it must not be all that different from prayer. I leave the shore, the dry sand of ordinary life, and climb up until I reach the crest of something nourishing and endless like water. As with any kind of exertion, I need to warm up first; it's easier when I'm with others who have the same purpose. The familiar sounds of the prayers—not their meaning, but the repetitive rhythm and music of the words—give me energy to swim out to sea.

I pray, I jump into that water not knowing what awaits, because I'm afraid I'll die of thirst without it. Prayer is now essential in my life; I can't imagine feeling safe and at home in the universe without those moments of pause and connection.

Maybe prayer is just mediation, learning how to tune out noise and focus on what's essential. But I think that's God, too—what remains after everything else is gone.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

895. Amazing

I've posted before about how I really love my iPhone. Here's further proof that it's an amazing device (sorry for the commercial at the beginning):

iPhone Saves Life of Man Trapped Under Rubble in Haiti

View more news videos at:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

894. Shalshelet

Three things I have not yet done in the course of my Torah chanting odyssey:

1. Chant the end of a book of the Torah and say "Hazah, hazak." (Just about every other adult who reads Torah at my synagogue has done this! I want to, as well, for no reason other than it would be cool. My timing seems to be lousy.)

2. Learn High Holy Day trope (I have too much stuff keeping me busy on days when one would chant this).

3. Chant a shalshelet, a rare, long, and baroquely ornate trope that appears just four times in the entire Torah. Here's what it sounds like, an entire song unto itself.

There was a shalshelet a few weeks ago in Pararshat Vayeshev, and a very smart friend noticed it was on the same word I chanted the following week, shalshelet-less: vayima'ein, "and he [Yosef, when tempted by the seductive advances of his master's wife] refused." We did some research in The Biggest Book Ever (aka Chanting the Hebrew Bible, by Joshua Jacobson), and learned that the trope name, which means "chain," probably—maybe—alludes to the long, drawn-out, waffling back and forth nature of the refusal. Jacobson's theory is that the purpose of trope is to clarify and support grammar, and secondary meanings are nice to speculate on but never a sure thing, so who knows.

Wikipedia led me to a fascinating paper about the shalshelet that analyzes each usage and ties them into a grand theory of struggle, confusion, and delay:

The Shalshelet: Mark Of Ambivelence

"The shalshelet arouses our attention at these four incidents," writes the author, Moise A. Navon, "which incisively illustrate the archetypal struggles which man must battle within himself."

This is what I love about Jewish learning: that meaning can be found in every detail, letter, sound, and sigh to help us become more self-aware and, in the process, a little better at repairing the world.

893. Antisocial Media

So I've apparently been banned from Facebook. I've been a member for a few years, visit once or twice a week to see what friends are up to or track down someone from elementary school, maybe post a line about my state of mind. That's it. I neither play online games nor promote my business. I'm the most benign Facebook user ever.

Last week I got what looked like a suspicious email about the status of my account. I decided to change my password in response. Next time I logged in, I was informed that I'd been "disabled," the fate of those who violate Facebook's terms of service and post offensive material, spam other users, etc. All traces of me have now disappeared from Facebook—old messages, photos, you name it. It's as if I never existed. Repeated emails to Facebook elicited no response until I tried to contact them from an address other than my usual one. Then I got an automated reply: we'll get back to you.

Call me a pessimist, but I don't think they will.

Seems I'm not the only one enmeshed in this Kafka-esque scenario. I've found hundreds of similar complaints online, many posted just this month. Some suggested that friends write to Facebook on the banned person's behalf; I tried this, and my friends got emails back asking me write directly. (Gee, I never thought of that!) A few complaints were from columnists, people with known names; their accounts were restored within a few days, along with apologies from real human beings. I guess the rest of us don't count.

Facebook is fun, and has enhanced that quality of my life; I'll miss it, but can certainly live without it. Hey, it's free—what should I expect? Sure, my presence puts ad revenue in Facebook's pocket, but they don't owe me anything personally, right?

But they do. Facebook attracts users by creating community, something we all crave; by alienating and ignoring a member of that community, they are failing miserably on both a business and ethical level. An organization (or a state, social group, synagogue, church) must be judged by the way they treat their weakest members. Hire more customer service people to deal with complaints (Mr. Zuckerberg, you can certainly afford it), or issue a public statement about why accounts are disabled in error, and how to rectify the problem. (Hint: sending out an automated reply and never following up is not the answer.) They demand responsible users; they must be a responsible service provider in return. This isn't a new concept, and Rabbi Hillel said it best: "Do not unto others that which is hateful unto you." Facebook seems to be forgetting that the Internet is small enough that such lack of respect is noticed, and big enough to make room for the next big thing to take their place.

UPDATE (hours after posting the above): Kvetching to the universe seems to have created some good karma. As mysteriously as they turned me into a non-person, Facebook just informed me (via a form letter, of course) that my account was restored. I'm happy to see it back, but will remain forever wary of investing too much of myself there or on any other social media platform that grows too big, too fast. It's community with a big asterisk.

Monday, January 18, 2010

892. Status

This essay in Haaretz caught my eye:

Why rabbis sin

The author writes, in part:

" ... Across the Jewish world, one scandal followed another: corrupt and criminal activity among kosher slaughterers and kashrut supervisors, drug smuggling, theft and other illegal financial practices, racial discrimination, sexual abuse, some rabbis recorded demanding sex for conversions and others taking drugs and employing prostitutes. One after another, the headlines have reiterated a sad litany of corruption among Orthodox Jews, in many cases among their rabbinical leaders.

None of this is new ... I am tired of making excuses. Once I would argue that 2,000 years of oppression, hatred and exclusion had taught the Jews to do whatever they needed to survive. Or, I would note that much of Orthodox Jewry nowadays is barely a generation removed from life in an Eastern Europe where the state was an enemy and everyone had to break the rules in order to evade the discriminatory regimes. ... It may be true that every religion has a similar problem, but that's no excuse. I don't deny the goodness, charity and spirituality that do exist within Orthodoxy, but I am concerned about so many who let the side down, and an automatic tendency of authority to blame the messenger.

All closed groups behave this way, not only Orthodox Jews ..."

Yes. I read the article thinking not of Orthodoxy, his focus, but many aspects of the Jewish world at large. It doesn't matter how we choose to pray or observe; once we start to feel comfortable with our status—whether at the top of the heap, or righteously oppressed—we run the risk of becoming complacent, no longer fighting to change our own lives but rather trying to change everyone else's to fit neatly into ours. Life is one big Catch-22. You finally get where you want to be and discover that you're someone else, often someone not very nice, once you're there.

891. Guilt

I had a horrible dream last night that I completely forgot about the second day of Rosh Hashanah. (But I had an excuse; it fell on Martin Luther King Day—it was REALLY early—and I assumed, in perfect dream-logic, that there could only one holiday a time.) As soon as I realized the truth, I ran around in a panic, yelling and screaming—who led the service? Would I be banished from the congregation? How could I ever atone?

I was enormously relieved to wake up and remember that today was only one holiday. I had been writing about guilt before I went to sleep, probably the reason for the dream, and also thinking about another al chet to add to the list come September. That visiting couple at the end of my row this Shabbat, the ones who were shocked by the appearance of the gospel choir, were also very annoying. They didn't say hello when I sat down (then again, neither did I, because I was annoyed they were sitting in MY part of the pew.) The man, clearly Jewishly knowledgeable, was unfamiliar with our siddur and tunes and spent much of the service flipping pages in grumbling confusion. When he did recognize something, however, he sang it really loud and fast, usually winning the race with the cantor and getting to the end first. I wanted to believe his zeal was spiritual, but could not help but imagine that he was trying to demonstrate, by mumbling at the highest possible decibel, how it really should be done. This man I didn't know from Adam, with his repeated, intrusive bursts of phrase fragments, started to represent all the reasons why I stayed away from Judaism for so many years. I began to hate his apparent closed-minded, self-congratulatory triumphalism—and then hate myself even more (al chet) for judging a complete stranger, on Shabbat no less. (Not just judging; making up an entire life story, complete with conflict, failure and ill-gotten gains.)

So I took many deep breaths and tried to grab onto some wisps of gemilut hasadim amidst the bad singing aimed at my left ear. I calmed down. And when I came back to my seat after chanting Torah, the man had a big smile on his face and held out his hand: "Yasher koah!" I realized that he looked just like most of my elderly relatives, who were pretty nice people beneath all the kvetching.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

890. Chromosomes

Thanks to my daily Google alert for the word "Judaism," here's a great blog post by an open-minded Orthodox rabbi (I don't mean to imply that these terms are oymorons, but sometimes they are, unfortunately) about the tendency of Judaism to look to the Matriarchs as role models for women, and the Patriarchs for men. But we all need to learn from all of these figures, no matter our respective genders:

The Sexing of Judaism's Founders

An excerpt:

" ... I am still disturbed by the implicit suggestion that Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov belong on one side of the mechitzah, and Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah are property of the women’s section. Do we really want to teach our children to emulate only those biblical figures who share their chromosomes? And where does that dichotomy leave people of more vague sexual identity?"

889. Rain

Today was grey and cloudy, and I felt like I was suffocating while sitting in my apartment doing important apartment-type things. It seemed like a good time to go to the gym, but that was indoors as well. So I went running instead, in the rain. It had been quite awhile since I ran outside (although I've logged many miles on the elliptical machine, safe from the elements).

The bare trees against the sky above Riverside Park looked like black lace; it wasn't too cold at all. I chose Beethoven to blast through my earphones, the Appassionata, and when I reached Grant's Tomb suddenly understood that this music was about struggling with a decision—calm, at first, then frenzied, a tug of war that threatens to be melodramatic but is actually restrained and even mathematically precise, especially under Daniel Barenboim's fingers. It's obsessive music, but not so self-involved that joy and passion don't break through like the sudden breath you draw upon seeing the sun emerge from behind a big cloud. The sun didn't come out at all during my run, but the silver light of rain was just as bright as it bounced off puddles on Riverside Drive. I don't think a decision is reached at the end of the sonata, but rather acceptance of an unresolved world where beauty and turbulence vie for space, and finally agree to coexist.

888. Gospel

So I was at a meeting with a bunch of people last week at the office of my synagogue. Suddenly one of the rabbis walked in.

"Are any of you going to be at services this Shabbat?" he asked.

I raised my hand, and looked around. No one else had their hands up.

"Are you sure?" asked the rabbi. "Are you reading [Torah]?"

"Yes," I answered, "so I'll definitely be there."

"Great," he said. "I have something for you to do. Come find me later." And then he left.

Very mysterious. We all shrugged and continued the meeting, and afterwards I knocked on his office door.

"Come in, come in. This is very important, and you can't tell anyone." And he proceeded to fill me in on the top-secret plan, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: a 40-voice gospel choir from a Harlem church was going to end the service with spirituals. (Kind of like in "Keeping the Faith," but without the Hebrew lyrics.) Not a soul would know about this until the choir actually got up in their seats and started singing—and my job (by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time), should I choose to accept it, was to help sneak them in.

Not accepting it wasn't an option—I'm not good at saying no to rabbis. Besides, it was cool. He gave me the instructions, and then gave them to me again later—and again and again, many more times over the next couple of days. He was a bit nervous, which I could understand. Unfortunately, he made me nervous, too. I didn't even want to imagine the guilt level that might result after screwing up a rabbi-imposed task. One unexpected side benefit, however, was that I didn't get at all nervous during my Torah reading about boils and cattle disease, which seemed easy compared to what I had to do immediately after grabbing my yad from the scroll.

(Although it wasn't as immediate as planned. The next reader came up to the bima when I finished, and she wasn't wearing a tallit. The gabbai, aghast and not wanting to halt the proceedings, turned to me and said, "Give her your tallit." Another situation where I didn't really have a choice; I gave it to her, but pulled F. over to the side and explained that I needed to leave for awhile, and asked him to get it back for me. When I asked him for it later, he told me he sold it. Very funny.)

The choir arrived and tiptoed into the back of sanctuary, and I told the director when they were supposed to stand and make their way to the front—and the coreography was perfect. "Trust in the Lord!" they sang, running up to the bima. I suddenly understood the meaning of the phrase "raise the roof"—I half expected the honest, passionate, heartfelt force of their sound to blow it into the heavens. The kids from the children's service crowded around the bima as well, the littlest ones dancing to some of the loudest gospel ever. The couple at the end of the row, guests of the Bat Mitzvah girl, turned to me in complete confusion. "Who are these people?" I was tempted to say, "Oh, we do this every week," but was too busy holding back tears. There was really no difference between their music and ours aside from the way it sounded. Chanting Torah, singing Hallel, singing a spiritual—it's all for the exact same purpose.

887. Dolls

When I was a little girl, I had a collection of dolls—the small kind meant to be displayed on a shelf—given to me by friends and family who went to more interesting places on vacation than we did. On an old black Smith-Corona, the one my mother used on weekends to type letters for my uncle's whiskey importing business, I made careful labels in all caps listing countries of origin to paste in thin, white strips on the dolls' dresses. There was "MEXICO," woven from straw and holding holding a basket of multi-colored papier-mâché, and "CHINA," two delicate porcelain figurines in a tiny case. And many more—but my favorite was "HAITI," made of coal-black fabric packed tightly with cotton. Her face was capped with a brightly patterned scarf, and she wore little gold hoop earrings. She didn't have a mouth, but her painted-on eyes looked like they were smiling. "Haiti" was more approachable than the other dolls, who were clearly for display; we had tea parties, and I perched her on the side of my dresser at night for company. Even before I knew where Haiti was, who lived there, or what language they spoke, I felt as if I had seen those smiling eyes for real. She was just a doll from an unknown friend of the family who thought to pick up a gift in an airport shop, but she made a child feel connected to a place and people that would otherwise be foreign, unknown, too distant for concern.

That feeling never left. To write that the devastation in Haiti is impossible to comprehend, unbearable to hear about a thousand times a day on the news, is just to repeat what everyone has said. There aren't any more words left, just action. Please give money. I wish I had more money to give. I do have an unlimited supply of prayers; I don't know if they make a difference, but they can't hurt. I hate that human beings are engineered so that other peoples' tragedies remind us to be grateful to be alive, safe, with food in our bellies, but we are and I am, more so than ever.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

886. Nonsense

I stumbled across this interesting article last week:

How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect

Exposure to uncanny, meaningless experiences strengthens our ability to recognize patterns and improves our ability to learn, suggest researchers:

"When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one."

The article recounts experiments where subjects read a weird story by Kafka and, immediately afterwards, were tested on their ability to find patterns in meaningless strings of letters. The Kafka group did much better than a control group who didn't hear the story.

I read this and immediately thought about my experience chanting Torah. When I first learned eight years ago, it essentially was nonsense; I understood very little. The words, attached to random melodies, were just sounds. But I soon discovered that the best time to practice was first thing in the morning; it was better than coffee at waking me up and getting me ready to face the work day. The creative puzzles of business and design always seemed a little easier, more fluid, when I tackled them right after chanting. Was it just that singing helped more oxygen than usual get to my brain? Who knows—but it makes sense that the task of navigating through gibberish would be like running your grey matter on a treadmill to gain strength and agility.

The best part of this article, however, was the correction note at the very end, dated a month after the story was published:

"The Mind column on Oct. 6, about the ability of nonsense to sharpen the mind, reported findings from a flawed statistical analysis. ... . After a reader questioned the analysis, the researchers repeated the experiment and found no significant difference between the groups. (A similar experiment reported in the same paper, in the journal Psychological Science, did hold up to re-analysis.)"

So the theory many not hold water at all. The article itself may be nonsense; maybe we're all part of the experiment to see if it's true ...

885. Talking

Here's a link I've been meaning to post since last September:

Streisand's Fine Instrument and Classic Instinct

I'm not a huge Streisand fan, but appreciate that she's an astonishingly gifted musician. I am in awe of anyone who can admit this:

"Did Ms. Streisand, like an opera singer, think incessantly about breathing deeply from the diaphragm, about using the diaphragm as a natural support for her voice?

'Never,' she said, sitting up straight on a couch in the living room of a friend’s Upper West Side apartment, looking elegant in a dark dress and lacy shoulder wrap. Everything about singing came to her naturally, she explained, adding, a little sheepishly, that she hardly ever does vocal exercises. "

But I was struck by these lines in particular:

"During the lesson [referring to her early voice training--just one lesson] Ms. Streisand got as far as the first line: “When a bee lies sleepin’ in the palm of your hand.” The teacher stopped her. “She said, ‘No, no, you have to say bee-e-e-,’ ” Ms. Streisand recounted, prolonging the word and singing it with a rounded, quasi-operatic tone. “I thought that was unnatural so I told her, ‘No, I have to sing the word as an extension of my speaking.’ ”

I think that that sums up all of singing, whether opera, rock, or chanting Torah, in a nutshell. It's musical talking. The sounds are not just there to be pretty, or to create an entertaining performance, but to say something to whomever is listening. The cantor gave me the same advice when I was first learning how to lead services. Like so many other ideas that seem obvious (i.e., do unto others, etc.) it's remarkably difficult to achieve, and takes a genius like Streisand to make it seem easy.

884. Procrastination

The six verses I chanted at services last Shabbat (Parashat Shemot) included these mysterious ones:

4:24 At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. 25 So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, "You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!" 26 And when He let him alone, she added, "A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision."

This odd interlude takes place right after Moshe begins the trip to Egypt in response to God's order:

4:22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. 23 I have said to you, "Let My son go, that he may worship Me," yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.'"

Why interrupt the story to talk about circumcision? wondered the rabbi at services. Who is the "him" that God tries to kill (Moshe? the son?)? And what in the world is a "bridegroom of blood"? I was very grateful for this d'var Torah, because I had no idea what I was talking about when I chanted. The rabbi admitted that no one else really knew (our humash, Etz Hayim, says that it might be a fragment of an ancient myth whose meaning is lost) but offered a few suggestions. You'd think that Moshe and family would be in a hurry to begin the trip; why, then, did they stop to rest? Drawing a parallel between the blood of brit milah and the ritual of blood on doorposts that saved the lives of the Israelite firstborn, maybe it's commentary on the need to take action--keep going, don't make camp. (Along these lines, Aviva Zornberg noted the similarity between the word for night encampment [malon] and circumcision [milah].) The story of the Jewish people, over and over again, is one of motion and response.

I'm losing a lot in the retelling (and I was busy studying what I was about to chant as the rabbi spoke, so paid less attention that I should have), but the message I came away with was as in Lekh Lekha: Don't wait. Do something. Last week I was thinking about the contemplative orders of other religions, like monks and nuns. Judaism has nothing like that, and Jewish meditation (at least in my limited experience) even frames itself as a way to create focus to help repair the world--to take better action.

So why did God create beings who so love to procrastinate? (I guess God really does have a sense of humor.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

883. Upside-down cattle disease

One of the reasons I love chanting Torah is because it allows me to write sentences like this:

Today I woke up early and spent an hour singing about boils and cattle disease.

(This coming Shabbat I'm reading part of Parashat Va-era. Of course, these are nowhere near the most graphic verses in the Torah. The worst I've personally intoned were a few years ago in Parashat Metzora.)

(About that dever: I've always thought of it as "upside-down cattle disease," because the illustration in the haggadah I used a child was of a cow on its back with its feet sticking up in the air.)

I can't believe we're nearing Sinai once again; Bereshit and the creation of the universe doesn't seem far enough away. Every year the cycle of Jewish holidays feels more and more like a roller coaster, a slow ride up after Simhat Torah that reaches a pinnacle on Shavuot, when we receive the Torah as free people and enjoy the scenery as we make our way back down.

It's always a little odd, though, that we read this portion a few months before Pesah. Maybe the ancient rabbis scheduled it to allow us ample time to ponder our fate and get in the mood for matzah. Whatever the reason, I get to to sing—not just once, but twice this Shabbat—"Let My people go that they may worship Me!"

Friday, January 08, 2010

882. Nourishment

Shamelessly stealing from Chevrutablogger, here are some of the wisest words about Shabbat I've ever heard. I hope I can heed them as I rush now to do laundry, vaccuum, and catch my breath before I get to exhale... Wishing everyone a very spiritually nourishing 25 hours.

881. Uncool

I've been meaning to share a bunch of links that caught my eye. Here's one, from November:

The Death of Uncool

"There are so many cultural trends today that the distinction between cool and uncool doesn’t matter anymore, says Brian Eno. We’re all hipsters now."

It really is true. The world is now like my very unusual high school, where there were a few of every kind of stereotype (Goth, jock, nerd, etc.), but no critical mass of any particular one. So there weren't "in" or "out" crowds, because no one faction could claim to be bigger and better than another. (I loved high school; the real world came as a shock.)

One of my rabbis often says that Judaism is counter-cultural. We rest one day of the week; most people never stop moving. We concentrate on repairing the world; far too many others seem bent on destroying it. But, as Brian Eno wrote, majority cultural opinions are splitting into smaller ones with different points of view—and the core ideas of Judaism seem to be much cooler these days as a result. The concept of Shabbat is less unfamiliar, for example, with other names ("staycations"). Everyone is now "green" and at least pretends to care about global warming. It's a start. In a universe of subgroups, it's harder to convince the masses that one opinion is better or cooler than another—and there's more space, in a world without a mainstream, for the formerly uncool to thrive and grow.

880. Characters

I attended just about the worst Hebrew School in North America, where I learned to read Hebrew, barely, and write—sort of. In the reverse scenario of most afternoon Hebrew School victims, we were taught script but not print. I graduated able to read any style of letter, but write only half of them. This never posed a problem until I took private Hebrew lessons a few years ago. The tutor was aghast at my semi-illiteracy, and sent me home with elementary school homework: a page full of printed alephs, a page of zayins, etc. I did learn, awkwardly, but had few opportunities to practice; I reverted back to script when I took Hebrew grammar classes later on.

I'm a graphic designer and type geek who spent four years in a pre-desktop publishing-era job tracing fonts with a #6H pencil, so know the printed Roman alphabet intimately as a result. Typefaces have personality; they're not called "characters" for nothing. The gentle serif on the ascender of a "d" or the height of the top of a two-story lowercase "g" can mean the difference between a word that entices you to read it, or one that chases you away with cold disdain.

So last week when I sat down to draw and paint some Hebrew letters, just for fun, I assumed they would be as familiar as my friends in the Roman alphabet. I forgot that my previous attempts to reproduce printed Hebrew were as awkward as making out with your very first boyfriend. After a short, frustrating while the paper was smudged and covered with bits of eraser, but I didn't give up—and eventually the process did begin to feel like a first date. That long line in the middle of an aleph could be jaunty or mellow based on the angle and swell of a serif. A khaf was bold or retiring, depending upon how far down the descender ventured below the baseline. The more I got to know these letters, the better I could hear their individual voices—kind of like the melodies of Torah tropes, but silent—and change the sound entirely with the slightest stroke of my pencil.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

879. Safe

I'm learning a fairly short (six verses) section to chant this coming Shabbat. Actually, I learned it already; the cantor emailed yesterday asking if could read, I looked at it for 15 minutes last night and another 20 early this morning, and—I knew it. Not that I won't practice a hundred more times over the next few days, nor escape sweaty palms on Saturday morning, but it's already firmly lodged in the short-term folds of my brain. Even after working on this skill for almost eight years (a tie with the longest job I've ever held), I still don't always believe I can do it. A track record of success has not yet convinced me. Although I understand the gist of what I chant, comprehension happens only while I study. Up at the bima, the combination of nerves and a complete lack of fluency turn the words into a string of comfortable, essentially meaningless syllables punctuated by a few checkpoints—aha, blood! (or "heart," "death," or any of those other concepts that require extra emphasis). How can I memorize this gibberish, I wonder? But when I start to sing, the words take on meaning beyond grammar, pulling me along even when I'm unsure of their direction or intent.

I think that's part of what makes it fun, my doubt that it can happen at all and a constant, irrational, threat of failure. I've never rock-climbed or hang-glided; chanting Torah is my equivalent of living on the edge. As long as I don't poke my eye out with the yad, I think I'm safe.

Monday, January 04, 2010

878. Drawers

When my mother was young, she volunteered at a local hospital and grew close to a man who was seriously ill with a grim prognosis, but always in great spirits. How do you stay so positive? my mother asked him. What do you think about when you're lying in bed, unable to move, cut off from everything that gave you pleasure?

The places, people, and events of my life are like a series of drawers, he answered. Every day I open a new drawer, look inside, and enjoy the contents. Some are good, some bad, but I open them just the same. Then I close and save them for another time.

My mother told this story often, and kept a photo of the man in one of our family albums—thin, pale, with a goofy smile, propped up in bed surrounded by an army of nurses and volunteers. I got that it was an important lesson to learn, but never understood why. Was it about not forgetting? Or more like havdalah—separation—appreciating each thing on its own, in its time?

Last week I decided to paint, which used to take up countless hours but fell by the wayside years ago for many different reasons. I dove in, after some fits and starts; it felt great, although was a bit of a struggle. But soon I could sense my brain responding in old, familiar ways, a tether between eyes and hands that had fallen slack since college. Even the light and air around me began to look like it did decades ago, an odd déjà vu. Had nothing really changed since then? I wondered. For a moment it was incredibly depressing—I didn't want to feel the same. I'm a very different person now.

But then I looked at what I painted and saw pieces of other images that came from different drawers. I chose one color because I chant Torah; the curved line was a relationship that ended in my 30s. White space at the top: walking alongside El Malecón, Cuba, 2002. The sensations of painting were the same as always, but my brush automatically outlined snapshots of a life I had not yet lived when I was 22. I finally understood that the drawers don't have to open one at a time; it doesn't even matter if you misfile and mingle the socks with the T-shirts. The best creative jolt comes from allowing yourself to open each, good and bad, and savor what's inside.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

877. Obligation

Yesterday at services the rabbi posed the question of what God expects of us. Do we feel obligated to God? Do we even imagine God as an idea to which we can feel obligated? Potential converts, he noted, often ask if being Jewish requires belief in God. His answer: try it out for awhile and see if it fits. Being Jewish means wrestling with the idea, even if you conclude that you don't believe.

I thought of this last night when reading an interesting article about how more women than men believe in God, possibly because of a biological or cultural imperative to seek out community, to which ritual is often attached:

Why Do More Women Than Men Still Believe in God?

The article is subtitled "Especially considering how God treats them." I've been lucky; any marginalization I experienced (such as having a fake Bat Mitzvah because I went to an Orthodox Hebrew school) happened before I was aware of, or even cared about the concept. (And the savings bonds I got at my fake Bat Mitzvah paid for my first trip to Israel a few decades later, so I'm not complaining.) I do now, and did back then, even without being able to articulate it, feel that God makes some demands of me. I'm not sure what, why or how; I acknowledge that I might be conflating the imperative with an ethical or moral sense. Perhaps they're one and the same. (Not even all those angry atheist authors can say definitively.) A few years ago I was jogging in the park and suddenly recalled a commentary about our bodies being borrowed from God. We're given only one in this lifetime, and must return it when we're done, so it only makes sense to treat it with care. So, in a way, I'm obligated to God every time I exercise and attempt to keep God's creation in the best possible shape.

Is prayer the same kind of required borrowing? Perhaps; when I sing and become joyful, I'm keeping the soul that was lent to me in good shape, as well.

876. Kosher

This recent excellent post by Chevrutablogger got me thinking about kashrut. Like understanding which trains were IND and which IRT, I can't recall when I first became aware of the difference between meat, dairy, and pareve. I just always knew. Keeping kosher as a child was like breathing, something I never consciously learned but realized was essential. We weren't terribly strict; we didn't have two sets of dishes or even one set of glass ones, another custom. Ours were pink, contemporary china, and any mention of those other practices was disdained as archaic. Yet my mother still soaked and salted meat (although never lit Shabbat candles), and my father prayed three times a day (but worked on Saturdays), walking a careful and sometimes unsteady line between tradition and modernity.

I remember acutely the few times I slipped. Once, after singing a concert at fancy-shmancy club, I was served a delicious soup I only only later learned was lobster bisque. I was mortified to admit it was the most delicious thing I'd ever tasted. When I was 7 and visiting a friend after school, her mother gave me a bologna sandwich with a glass of milk. I knew I shouldn't eat it, but wasn't sure why. I did anyway, told no one, and forgot about it for years—until, one day, I recalled the moment and felt guilty. For a few months in college, I ate pizza with pepperoni because I thought pepperoni was a kind of vegetable (a green pepper that wasn't green). Yes, I wan't too swift back then. I stopped as soon as I figured out the truth, but did enjoy those months--as well as the ones when I ate chicken tettrazinni, not comprehending that the cheese-like substance surrounding the chicken was, in fact, cheese. I was an unaware eater, to say the least.

After my parents divorced, my mother relished BLTs in diners. (Never cheeseburgers or shrimp, however; that would be truly unthinkable. Bacon looked close enough to pastrami to seem OK.). I think it was her way of celebrating emancipation, and the fact that she never again had to serve my father borscht or kishkas. I'd order a tuna fish sandwich and she never suggested I do otherwise, understanding even before I did that kashrut represented a time in my childhood when things were good and stable.

I think I still keep kosher for that reason more than any other. It connects me not only to my heritage and religion, but also to memories of being nourished unconditionally by the food of safety and love. Following the minhag of my parents, I'm not the strictest observer of kashrut. I mostly, but not always, avoid meat in restaurants; chicken never seems like meat. I do look for OUs and Ks on food packaging, most of the time. Aside from those few moments above, I've never knowingly eaten shellfish, pork, or milk and meat together, even during the years when I barely set foot in a synagogue, and have not the slightest desire to do so. I rarely yearn for forbidden fine cuisine. Keeping (sort of) kosher still feels like breathing, unconscious and necessary. At times I wish it didn't, and perhaps one day will move kashrut to the realm of a more mindful choice regarding God and heritage, as it should be.

Friday, January 01, 2010

875. Run

Last night was not only New Year's Eve, but also a "blue moon"—the second full moon in a month. (This happens every few years, but won't occur again on New Year's Eve until 2028.) Judaism had a similar event last April 8 when we said the Birkat Hahama to mark the completion of the sun's 28-year solar cycle. (Hmm, 28 years... 2028... 28 = 4 x the 7 days of creation.) Whether or not these occasions and numbers have grand significance, I have no idea—but I think we put too much emphasis on the possibility.

We lead linear lives, and by custom and instinct mark the milestones on that line—New Year's, birthdays, s'mahot, yahrzeits. Like the word "milestone" implies, these signposts remind us how we've grown and changed, how far we've traveled from beginning to end. And we're limited by the laws of physics from skipping any step on that path. We have no choice but to take each one. Still, we often try to speed through like a race (climb the corporate ladder as fast as possible; get rich quick, etc.). This really makes no sense, since ultimately we want to extend the journey for as long as possible. But the fastest caveman caught the biggest large beast and therefore got the best dinner; we're also hard-wired, as a survival tactic, to run from milestone to milestone and ignore the scenery. Run vs. amble, an eternal struggle between two necessary compulsions.

So I try not to put too much stake in those portentous 28-year- or millennium markers (i.e, Y2K). All the preparation, pining, waiting for a few brief blue moon moments distracts from closer scenery, the daily goals and triumphs that keep us engaged as we travel from one end of the road to the other. Those are the real occasions that mark our slow, steady and (God willing) very long progress through life.