Sunday, September 26, 2010

954. Handicapped bathroom

Yesterday, as planned, I spent part of the day with old friends at a place where a nurse could not come to give me the second Neupogen shot. One of these friends, whom I hadn't seen in about 25 years, was a doctor, and she agreed to supervise as I self-injected.

Soon as I arrived, we headed into the women's handicapped-accessible bathroom. "Wow, I can't believe it's been so long!" I said, and then pulled down my pants and began to laugh. It was, by any stretch of the imagination, a ridiculous situation. My friend, very serious back in the 80s and, I soon discovered, even more so now, didn't find it funny at all, which made me laugh even more. I quickly composed myself and laid all the injection paraphernalia atop the toilet tank.

I was able to fill the needle with medicine, but was very grateful for her presence—I didn't realize that you have to keep pushing and depressing the plunger to get the air at the top to disappear. The first shot was easy, but halfway through the second I had a moment of panic that that the needle was going was too far into my thigh, and froze. Very eager to leave the bathroom ("People might get the wrong idea!"), she pushed my hand away and finished pressing. She was already gone by the time I pulled the needle out. (She did eventually laugh about the whole thing later that afternoon.)

I felt just fine afterwards—tired, a few twinges in my legs. Woke up this morning without any pain. A chatty and pleasant visiting nurse arrived at 9AM to give me day three injections, along with a story of the famous bone marrow donor she visited a few weeks ago who got both their photos in the paper. My lower back, legs, and right shoulder did begin to hurt a few hours later, as if I had slept funny or overdone it at the gym. It was impossible to find a comfortable way to sit on the couch, but the floor was just fine. And the pain went away entirely after two extra-strength Tylenol. Now I'm kind of stiff, and glad I don't have to take any long walks.

Tomorrow, lots of distracting work and then I have to write a note to give to the recipient. And download some movies to my iPad. And then I show up at the hospital Tuesday morning at 8, bringing layers of clothing because I'll probably get cold during the donation. (But how will I put on a sweater if I have IVs in both arms?)

953. Dart

On Friday morning I left Sukkot services early and, lulav bag in hand, got on the bus to the hospital to meet C. and K. for my first Neupogen injection. (K. was the person who called me that very first time in March, and whom I didn't believe.) They shepherded me through a finger stick to test my blood levels, and then we headed to a room down the hall to wait for a nurse. Someone came to take my vitals (how I managed to lose a pound during the holidays is a greater miracle than matching to be a donor), and then A. arrived.

I cannot imagine a better nurse to teach someone known to faint at the sight of blood how to inject herself with a needle, as I would need to do for the second shot. A. looked very much like an actress whose name escapes me: Jamaican, no-nonsense, perpetual smile, drily honest sense of humor. "I gave myself shots seven times a day when I was pregnant," she said. "I'm a nurse, and it was still weird. But you can do it." This was not resounding encouragement. C. handed me a big envelope with the paraphernalia required by both myself and the nurse who would administer the third and fourth shots. He removed the needles, which I was surprised to discover weren't pre-filled. ("We're old fashioned," explained A.) I'd need to stick two of them into two separate vials, and then stick myself twice in the thigh. It was awkward to hold both needle and vial while pushing the plunger, and I had a moment of fear when she explained how to tap it to get rid of air bubbles—wait, isn't that how people commit homicide (at least on House, M.D.)? Thankfully, not a danger in this case. (I probably couldn't even give someone a mild headache with that little needle.) An air bubble would cause a bruise, nothing more.

"Just pretend it's a dart," suggested A., and grabbed a chunk of my thigh to demonstrate. Suddenly the needle was in; I barely felt it. (Never before have I been grateful for the abundance of flesh on my thighs.) I depressed the needle, just a little sting. I got up and filled the next needle, and then sat down on the table and stuck myself. Actually, I stuck myself and immediately pulled out the needle, almost a reflex action. The second try was successful, and I pushed the plunger. This one stung a bit more, since there was more medicine in that vial, but really wasn't bad at all. I think the trick is in not thinking about the fact that you're sticking a really pointy needle into your body.

I looked up and A. was beaming. "Excellent," she said. I felt very proud.

So I went back home with the next three days' worth of drugs and a prescription for Tylenol 3, as well as a goody bag filled with rainbow-colored candy, more Tylenol, a little "Be the Match" lapel pin, a sweet thank-you card signed by everyone at the blood center office with a free movie pass tucked in and, best of all (since it was 2:00PM by then and I hadn't even had breakfast) a big dark chocolate Hershey bar. I ate half, followed by a slightly healthier omelet. K. explained that the anticoagulant administered during the donation would leach my body of calcium, so it wouldn't hurt to beef up beforehand. So I went to the store and treated myself to three kinds of cheese.

Then I waited for the side effects. Some discomfort on Sunday and Monday would be a good indication that the Neupogen had "mobilized," i.e., was doing its job to send my white blood count to the moon. I could expect pain my lower back and sternum, major sites where stem cells grow. Went home, took a nap, then walked to Friday night services and dinner with friends. All was well except for a strange feeling of my feet being very heavy, and I think I was a little dizzy—but that might have been all in my head. I had a lovely evening but was distracted by worrying if and when those symptoms might start, so left early and slept really well.

"Sukkot is a holiday of the body," observed the rabbi at services on Thursday. On the High Holy Days we immerse fully in our spiritual lives to contemplate past and future—but on Sukkot we can actually touch the fruits of those ideas. We grasp and shake the lulav, inhale the aroma of the etrog—in mystical interpretation, representations of the spine, eyes, mouth, and heart—and connect to heaven and earth through a very physical ritual. Another reason why Tuesday, the sixth day of Sukkot, seems like a good time for the donation.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

952. 99.9%, part 2

(Continued from here.)

At the hospital, C. told me that the recipient was about to start the transplant preparation regimen that same day—chemo and radiation to destroy her immune system in preparation for the healthy stem cells that would rebuild it. No turning back after that for either of us. So this was the last thing I expected to hear on the other end of the phone:

"I'm so sorry. They want to postpone the donation."

Seems the recipient was on a drug regimen to improve her condition, and a few more weeks would help even more. Was I available next month? Of course, whenever needed. But I was all psyched to get it done already. And my friends were psyched for me; now I'd have to tell them it was another false alarm. Boy, did I feel petty. Someone else's life was at stake, and the only thing I could think about was my own schedule and Facebook status.

But that really was all I could think about.

Before I could continue to dislike myself and add to the long list of items requiring breast-beating in a few days, the blood center lady continued: "There's another option. You could donate now, and they'll freeze your stem cells and transplant them in a month."

Yes, yes, I want to do it this way, I said, even before she finished the sentence. Sleep on it, she suggested. No need for an answer right now. So I pondered, and waffled: October, without the added complication of the Jewish holidays, was more convenient, and it also would be a little more dramatic in Grey’s Anatomy style: donation done, they’d whisk away the bag of cells and new life would start flowing through her veins within hours. Cut to commercial. Yeah, right.

One of the things I hate most, aside from anchovies and cigarette smoke, is indecision—but I was completely stumped, even more so that the situation warranted. Either option was fine with respect to the recipient's heath, or they wouldn't have left the choice up to me. But at that moment, maybe because Yom Kippur was right around the corner, I was desperate to make the decision for the right reason and not just the most expedient. I spoke to a number of very wise people, and interrogated the blood center: are you sure frozen cells are OK? Yes, and she was deemed an excellent candidate for that process, not always the case. I lost a night's sleep, and realized that patience was something I needed to work on in the new year.

Then a friend posed a question: will the recipient be told about your advance donation or find out only when she was ready for the transplant? I thought about how this woman might feel, twice turned away at the edge of a possible new future. If she knew my cells were ready the second she was, no need to wait or wonder if I'd lose patience and decide not to donate, maybe this would give her even more hope and strength.

I confirmed that she would know in advance, and it became a much easier decision. On Friday I’ll get the first Neupogen injection, and everything is set for next week as originally planned. On the same day this last bit of drama unfolded, I was also asked to read part of the Yom Kippur morning haftarah. This was one of the verses:

The Lord will guide you always.
He will slake your thirst in parched places
And give strength to your bones.
You shall be like a watered garden,
Like a spring whose waters do not fail.
—Isaiah 58:11

So maybe now, and not next month, is the right time for that added strength in my bones, so they can become a spring.

Hag sameah, and wishing everyone a sweet and happy Sukkot.

Monday, September 20, 2010

951. 99.9%, part 1

I took these notes last Monday morning:

9/13, 10:30am

Sitting in the hospital's cancer treatment center waiting room waiting for the donor liaison, who will shepherd me through repeat blood tests. Other people here with colorful scarves on their heads, walking in and out wearing surgical masks and beautiful but obvious wigs, some smiling, sone stony-faced. And others, like me, whose reason for being present can't be guessed from appearance alone.

Then C. arrived, and I had stop writing. And it seemed there wouldn't be much of interest to say until the donation, because the tests were uneventful--5 more vials of blood (a breeze!--I think I'm finally cured of my fear of needles), another nurse poking the crooks of my arms to assess the state of my veins (could they have changed from a few months ago?), more of the same questions about travel, drug use, and sexual history (just as boring as back in May). "So this is really, finally going to happen?" I asked. "Yes," said C. "100% sure."

The blood bank head nurse also gave me a little tour of where I'd hang out all those hours, a subterranean but cheery room bustling with energy and purpose. She explained that a new blood bank was being built, but for now the only window was a painting donated by a former patient, a beach scene in tropical colors that would be visible from my bed, the one next to the big, noisy Frankensteinian filtering device. (Otherwise known as an apheresis machine, aka thing that performs miracles. I made a mental note to ask someone to explain, over the course of the 8 hours I'd be tethered, exactly how it knows which are the stem cells.) It was reassuring to see that exact spot, and be reminded that this event was routine for everyone except me. (In the next bed was a bored-looking teenager hooked up to an iPod and cell phone as well as a central line. The nurse explained that she was getting an infusion to treat a neurological disease. All in a day's work.)

The nurse also reminded me that I wouldn't be able to go to the bathroom for 4 hours, so not to drank any coffee beforehand. I think this aspect of the experience makes me more nervous than anything else. But I'll live.

By then the blood tests had been rushed through, and C. reviewed them: no change, all was normal. He also volunteered the weight of the recipient, more than mine, and explained that this meant a large number of stem cells were needed and so the donation might take the full two days--unless my blood decided to flow quickly. An anticoagulant would encourage the process. (I wonder if the rabbis ever devised a prayer for fast-flowing blood? Maybe one of those psalms that compare life to a swift stream would do the trick.)

(It's strange to know nothing more about a person than age, illness, and number of kilograms. When I told some friends, they got worried--she needs to lose weight! It can't be good for her health! Then we considered the possibility that she was taller than I was, as is the case with much of the world. And then we realized how ridiculous we sounded.)

I got back home and reviewed the facts; tests OK, person in charge said it would definitely happen. I had told some friends about the whole saga, but not everyone. This seemed a good time to share the news on Facebook.

I posted, and comments started coming in--yes, it's amazing.

And then the phone rang, a familiar area code. (Continued here.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

950. High Holy Days 5771, part 3

I hope everyone had an easy fast. I did; just a little thirsty, and not hungry at all. (Although my stomach did begin to rumble in the morning during Sh'ma Koleinu, which I hope the microphone did not pick up.) I'm sure my relative comfort was due in part to the three large meals I had the day before, and also because I was simply too focused to want to stop and eat. I know all the halakhic reasons for fasting, and they make perfect sense, but I think I finally, truly understand why we do it. Meals, even when experienced alone, are social events. You're ether with and talking to people, contemplating them, or buried in a magazine, fork in the other hand, reading about how much better other people's meals are than yours. Rarely is eating a thoroughly solitary experience during which one ponders future life and death, as is our task on Yom Kippur. (If we had to think about those things at meals, we'd probably lose our appetites.) Community surrounds us like a cocoon on Yom Kippur to create a safe space in which we can experience the deepest, most intensely private prayer--much less likely to happen if we had to keep interrupting ourselves to eat, especially in the usual, social way. There's also the convenient side benefit of hunger, lightheadedness and the altered state of feeling empty mentally as well as physically--all the better to allow prayer to flow unimpeded.

Whatever the reason, I did have a tzom kal [easy fast], and a few of those scary but good naked moments: God, I've run out of words to enumerate how I've screwed up. Please just extract them from me. I know it's painful surgery without anesthesia. That's OK.

I don't have much to write about singing this Yom Kippur. There were neither catastrophes nor unintended drama (aside from a few minutes at the beginning of Shaharit at Big, Fancy, New Theater when I couldn't hear the musicians, who were playing a little too sensitively for the world-class sound system to pick up. After some dueling key signatures between bimah and band, they turned up the volume and all was well.) I tried to wring out every bit of myself, and also remembered to breathe. I felt like I was having a conversation with all the people I couldn't join for dinner, a thousand friends in the same boat. It was a two-sided dialogue even though I was way up front, their presence the most comforting thing in the world, and the answer I was looking for. Later that the day at Minha at the Usual Church, I quickly realized I wouldn't use up my remaining energy; great stores of fumes remained even after the fuel tank reached "E". But I tried.

I spent the entire Yom Kippur with the same rabbi, which is unusual (because I was switched to Big, Fancy theater at the last minute for Shaharit. Although a million other reasons could be at play, I think it's because someone was suddenly unable to chant half the haftarah, so I was asked to fill in. Which was also fun—although there sure are a lot of words to fit into the melody in that last paragraph of Yom Kippur-specific blessings.) It was nice to have the privilege of standing at this rabbi's side throughout, her continued presence welcome stability, because I hit the jackpot this year—four services over the Yamim Nora'im at four different locations. Usually I get to lead in one location more than once—not this time, although I felt equally at home everywhere, having logged lots of prayer in each place. I was reminded that Judaism is a religion of time, not space—with the right intention, anywhere can be holy. This year the entire Upper West Side (and a little below) was my synagogue, its walls defined by the crowds on Broadway, oblivious to the holiday but still sharing it with me as I walked home after Kol Nidre on Friday night, as well as the tall stained glass windows of the sanctuary where we usually pray, hiding the outside world but letting in just enough light so that we couldn't forget it, either.

Monday, September 13, 2010

949. Dog with a log between its teeth

In just a few hours I head back to the hospital for a re-do of all those blood tests from last May, just in case I met up with a nasty mosquito during a recent weekend trip down the Amazon. (Not.) Assuming all is well, my first of five Neupogen shots will be on 9/24; I'll need to leave second day Sukkot services early in order to get to the hospital on time. After five days of injections, my stem cells will be practically leaping out of my bones, and hopefully not causing any discomfort in the process.

The next three shots were to be given at my home by a VNS nurse. Inconveniently, I have plans to be elsewhere on 9/25. I usually stay close to home on Shabbat but this was a special occasion, in the works for awhile. Someone else could give me the shot, which is subcutaneous and not intravenous (i.e., the kind of needle you stab yourself with in the arm or thigh, like a diabetic does with insulin), but that person would first need to submit credentials to the donation center and be thoroughly vetted. Of course this makes sense, but is also a big pain. The other option, which a few dear doctor friends convinced me is perfectly feasible, is to give myself the injection. Needles give me the creeps, but I opted to go this route after a dozen phone calls failed to identify a suitable injection-giver. They'll teach me how to do it at the hospital, and send me home with a cooler full of drugs and gel packs. One of the friends I'll be with is a doctor herself, so can supervise.

Or I might decide to skip the event, which will require stamina and some running around, and just lounge around at home that weekend. I have 11 more days to decide; it wouldn't be the end of the world, and would probably be the spiritually saner course of action. I was originally set to read Torah on the second day of Sukkot, too, but some people far wiser than I suggested I focus my kavannah on the impending donation rather than on vowels and trope. To be honest, I haven't been able to focus on much of anything for weeks. I've cranked out some less than brilliant work, paid bills, gone to the gym, all the usual stuff. But a good chunk of my brain is floating in a fog somewhere above. Often it feels real, other times utterly impossible and I wait to wake up, but then it's real once again and all I can do is smile and marvel, or sing. Rosh Hashanah couldn't have come at a better time.

The other day I wondered if this is how parents or pregnant women might feel, a mixture of awe and a massive sense of responsibility. (How I wish I could ask my mother; oddly, coincidentally, I am now the same age as she was when she had me.) But then I decided it fell into a category all its own. Unlike a child, we are both responsible; the recipient of my stem cells chose to place her trust in a complete stranger. I can't imagine a braver act. Maybe I'm reacting as a surgeon or cop might, or that guy on the trapeze who catches the other guy by the wrists after he flies through the air. There is no way to sufficiently rise to the responsibility of embracing so much trust. All a person can do is keep living and breathing and doing her best, and God will take care of the rest.

On the way to services the other morning I passed by a big, scary-looking man walking an even larger scary-looking dog. The dog was also armed, in case they were not imposing enough, and held a log, the trunk of a small tree, in its jaws. Man and dog trotted past, and I gave them a wide berth on the sidewalk. And then they were gone, no harm done. I think that's how the donation will feel: some shock, excitement, a little fear, and then--done. Meanwhile, I finally fixed the alarm clock in my bedroom to display the actual time after years of keeping it set to seven minutes ahead, or maybe it was six, which I thought helped stop me from being late and forced me to rush, since I could never be sure of the actual time. But in reality I just subtracted six or seven and went about my business. Now, instead, I will be forced to focus on the present moment alone.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

948. High Holy Days 5771, part 2

The holidays, so far, have been calm and ecstatic, like fireworks contained in a careful, hand-made box. It feels like we--rabbis, congregants, musicians, me--have figured out how to breathe in safe places despite the unsettled turn of world events these past few months, and so are free to enjoy the music and try to renew no matter what. Or maybe we just know our parts a little better now. And it's two days post-Rosh Hashanah and, miracle of miracles, I do not have a cold (knock wood, p'tui p'tui, evil eye begone! and all those other things other people's grandmothers used to say), reason enough to exult and relax. On Tuesday I have a Yom Kippur rehearsal, since this year I'm back to leading both Shaharit and Minha, followed by copious amounts of deadline work until the edge of Kol Nidre. But I'll be fine. And tomorrow morning, repeat blood tests to make sure all is well for the bone marrow donation (more about that in another post). A week overflowing with the sacred and ordinary, no better preparation for approaching those open gates.

Meanwhile, one of my favorite voices of all time (aside from the cantor at my synagogue) sings a song my father used to, a tune buried so deeply in my past that it took a few hearings of this link forwarded by a friend to understand why it made me shiver and become unbearably sad--and happy, as well, the echo of childhood and sensation of being embraced by the compact, muscular arms of an off-key, deeply resonant bass with a rakish mustache and always a few Hopjes candies in his pocket:

Paul Robeson, Song of the Plains

947. High Holy Days 5770, part 9

A little out of sequence, sorry, but I wanted to finish last year's story, continued from here:

Gallons of water and the threat of noxious potions did the trick, and I still had a voice when Yom Kippur arrived. The evil bug hadn't left me unscathed, however. In its wake remained a throat that felt like brittle parchment no matter how much liquid I poured down it. But I could sing just fine, and only coughed--violently and endlessly--on occasion.

The service went well, and the Louds even held their tongue. Then we got to Besefer Hayim, almost at the finish line, right before the changing of the guard (someone different would lead for Musaf). I began to sing and suddenly couldn't catch my breath, as if my vocal cords were feathers attempting to rub together fast enough to start a fire. I put down the mic, walked over to the edge of the bima, and faced left as far as possible without actually turning my back to the entire congregation, and pretty much coughed my lungs out for about a minute. The rabbi and everyone else kept singing, and I think only the people in the first row noticed anything was amiss. I recovered my composure just in time for Kaddish Shalem, grateful that the fit didn't happen during Hamelekh or another less participatory part of the service.

946. High Holy Days 5771, part 1

It was magnificent. This has been the most relaxed holiday by far in the seven years I've been helping to lead. I had just one rehearsal on Tuesday--Rosh Hashanah began on Wednesday--basically a reunion with old friends. (Although the run-through was invaluable, since the same questions popped up this year as always: how many lines of intro before Psalm 150? will you play "A" or "B" to start off L'el orekh din? and a few others.) But my alter ego Ms. Paranoia (when will they send that email with the assignments? did I delete it by mistake? did they change their minds? what did I do wrong? and other nonsensical thoughts) disappeared the minute I opened my mouth.

I was at the Theater With the Zipper for Day 1, much less cave-like than I remembered. Even though years had passed since I'd last been inside, the big, concrete space was comfortable and familiar, and oddly intimate. The zipper itself advertised an upcoming movie, which seemed OK since it was, after all, a festive holiday. My only surprise was being asked to gabbai, not stressful since the Torah readers were among the congregation's most perfect and experienced. Maybe one day the rabbis will remember that I don't actually know High Holy Day trop. (Or maybe one day I'll learn it.)

Day 2 was at the synagogue, which felt like I won the lottery. (I did, sort of; hazzanim are assigned locations on an eminently fair rotating basis, and I guess it was my turn.) It was comforting and exhilarating to pray at home in the glow of walls alive with vines and jewels of deep red and gold, and the breath of hundreds of friends close by rather than a few feet below (the one drawback of being on a theater stage).

Life would be boring without a few challenges, however. Before we walked out front, the rabbi asked me to remind him where the service began.

"Page 58," I answered. Hareni mikabelet, as always: love your neighbor as yourself. Now, sometimes we don't start here; there's often improvising and extra niggunim on Shabbat. But we always follow the script on the Yamim Nora'im, because the instrumentalists have music in front of them and there's no way they can keep up if we skip around.

Since the rabbi did ask me to confirm page 58, and we had begun with page 58 for the past six years, I felt pretty confident that I could start singing on page 58. I took a deep breath. And then the rabbi reached over to my mahzor and turned the page.

"Here," he whispered, pointing to the Birkat Hashahar, the morning blessings. The musicians, who are all geniuses with ESP, saw what was going on and turned their pages as well, and began to play. My early-morning brain was still expecting to follow the script, however; I was very flustered. But I recovered and found my place after a second or two, since page 60 is my favorite melody of them all, and the rabbi would alternate verses with me. That would give me a few moments to compose myself.

Except he did not come in at verse 2, or even 4 or 6. I paused before each "Amen," not wanting to step on his toes or show inadvertent disrespect if, in fact, he chose to sing. But he was clearly deep in concentration and happy to let me do my thing. Almost at the end, I realized that I could have been having a lot more fun had I worried less about following rules and more about breathing and praying. Fortunately there were still a few verses left.

The blessing before the Shema took us on another brief adventure to the wilds of keys as yet unexplored. Then the rabbi prompted me to sing the hatima, the last line, in High Holy Day nusah as always. The good angel on my right shoulder hummed the correct note. The other little guy on the left disagreed: sing higher, it's more fun! I succumbed to temptation, and for a split second forget that it wasn't an a cappella service. And then I took note of the strange, new tonal world where I landed, and got very disoriented. (I also remembered that the cantor, who would be leading Musaf, was sitting a few feet away. I knew he knew exactly what was going on.) I stumbled on a few words but made it safely to the end when, gratefully, we all covered our eyes as the rabbi chanted. I asked God to have the keyboard player come in for the next hatima and, sure enough, my prayers were answered.

The rest of the service proceeded without a hitch. This rabbi, unlike the others, chooses to face the Ark for the entire repetition of the Amidah, not just the Kedusha section. There are few other more comforting sensations in life than the crush of a roomful of souls at your back, holding you up as you sing.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

945. Nine years

I generally wear sunglasses when it's very bright out, but only during the summer. September light doesn't bother my eyes as much--and I like being reminded that short days are still full of sun.

But I grabbed my sunglasses this morning, just in case. And as soon as I got outside and saw the perfect blue sky, not a single cloud, just a slight breeze and maybe you need a light sweater in the shade, I put on the glasses. They changed the sky to a warmer color, closer to July, as if the summer were just beginning, and allowed me to enjoy the walk to services and put off thinking about the pain of this day for a few more minutes.

Last year and the year before weren't so bad. Time seemed to be healing; we were sad, but also learning and growing. Moving on? I don't know--does that ever really happen after a death, or is it more a case of getting used to the tear in one's soul and figuring out how to move around it so the acid only splashes on the edges?

But today, this month, this year, is different. I've never before felt such fear and hatred in the air. Maybe our collective recovery was too fast, and we've relapsed back to those days right afterwards when we stayed awake to keep vigil until the next evil thing fell out of the sky. Or the pace of life has become so quick and unforgiving that the comfort of past flaws seems safer than any kind of change.

At services last night, the rabbi recalled a conversion with a bar mitzvah right after the attacks. What do you want most? he asked the boy. I want it to be September 10 again, he answered. So here it was 9/10 once more, right on the cusp of a new year full of hope and promise, and I thought back to that day before. I was lucky; my life didn't change dramatically in those 24 hours. I was as unemployed before 9/11 as after. (If anything, the sudden, grim economic situation gave me the push I needed to work for myself, which would otherwise have been way too scary.) I lost no loved ones, and had friends and a community to rely on. I am still basically the same person, just older and tireder and a little less trusting.

So I wonder, as we plunge into 5771, what it does take to change? If I--we--can so quickly resume our old lives after the murder of neighbors and threat of war in our own backyards, and then even forget that we were once the persecuted strangers ourselves, is there any hope that we'll ever learn peace? I think so. I want to believe there is. At an interfaith memorial service this morning, where my tears stained the same pews as on that evening nine years ago, the minister of the church whose space we share offered an apology. For years, he said, he listened as his friend the imam (who couldn't join us today because he had to stay at an "undisclosed location") apologized for things he didn't do, sins committed by others who shared his religion in name only. Now, said the minister, it was his turn to do the same, because real Christians do not hate. Then my rabbis led us in song and the Mourner's Kaddish, and I remembered that real Jews don't hate, either. Or real, ethical human beings, whatever they might think about God. This "new normal," the return to comfortable, familiar fear, is not normal at all, and it gave me hope to be in a sanctuary filled with others who knew this as well. I hope and pray that someone can figure out how to slap this entire country in our collective face and make us all understand.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

944. A new song

From the Reform movement's daily email "Taste of Torah" this past Labor Day:

"During these High Holy Days, we are surrounded by the teachings of Torah and the prayers of our services, and one hopes that we are open to hearing them as well as the voice within. Listening is an art; we all hear the same words of Torah but may hear them in very different ways. The way we hear or give ear or understand our encounters with God can never be fully described to anyone else, even as we strive to transform the mundane into the spiritual and achieve a sense of the sacred through the way we live our lives on earth."

--Rabbi Elliot L. Stevens is the rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Montgomery, Alabama.

Wishing everyone this Yamim Nora'im the gift of hearing something new, and the ability to use our own voices to bring those sounds to life. Shanah Tovah!

943. Awe immersion preparation

(Trying to catch up on some pre-holiday posts before the holiday appears in a very short time.)

Selihot on Saturday night, the final stretch of awe immersion preparation. We studied and sang two piyutim, liturgical poems: Ahot Ketana, traditional for that day, to a Moroccan melody, and Leka Eli Teshukati, often sung prior to Kol Nidre, with a tune from the Jews of Greece. Gorgeous, flowing music set to texts about how desperately, almost agonizingly we yearn to connect to God. But the tunes are infused with joy, no pain at all.

I didn't grow up with music from that part of the world; it's not my tradition at all. If music were like food, then it wouldn't be entirely kosher for me to embrace these sounds. You can't decide to become Sephardic at Passover just to be able to eat kitniyot, for example. Born Ashkenaz, you're kind of honor-bound to stick to those customs. Thank goodness it doesn't work like that with music, because I am not the biggest fan of the sounds of my most closely relsted forebears. On Saturday night I watched the end of an excellent documentary about a well-known cantor whose passion in life is to spread the joy of hazzanut--excuse me, chazzanus--the traditional plaintive, operatic and melodramatic style of cantorial singing popular in Eastern Europe for a few centuries, and then in the US as Jews flooded these shores. It's still the sound most people associate with cantorial music, althoug few cantors sound like that anymore.

I am grateful to this musician and his colleagues for helping insure that this link to our past doesn't become a dying art. But I'm also very glad that fewer hazzanim, at least in liberal Jewish circles, sound like that. I don't like it at all. In fact, I hate it. There, I've said it, and pray that the combined force of my ancestors rolling over in their graves won't knock me over. As soon as I heard the first florid, kvetching glissando escspe this cantor's mouth, I was transported to the time in my life when Judaism was a spectator sport dominated by mumbling old men. (I like it even less when sung by a woman; there were a few examples of this in the film, as well.) I know others have fonder memories of this style of music, but to me it just sounds like people trying to be larger than life--which should be the domain of God alone. The cantor at my synagogue has the most glorious voice on earth, and probably heaven as well, but also a way of singing that is smaller than life--humble, full of awe, able to make quiet sounds that leave room for the rest of us to hear the still small voice. His hazzanut isn't about him, but us, one of the best gifts I've ever received.