Sunday, September 12, 2010

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.

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