Chesed, Anyway You Like
Today I had a very successful audition for a local orchestra. I am very pleased with myself for the hard work of preparing for it, and also for the promise of good times ahead.
In case you may have missed this: I love playing my oboe, and particularly I am in love with the process of Chessed that comes with that ability. How are oboe playing, orchestras, and Chesed connected? Well, one way is to think about the inspirational speech from Karl Paulnack (http://www.bostonconservatory.edu/music/karl-paulnack-welcome-address), who summarized to anxious parents of new music conservatory students that indeed, their children as musicians, will heal the world as well as any medical doctor, therapist, or rabbi. What he is saying is that from engaging in one’s own abundance, one finds gratitude that is so overwhelming that it is given as gifts to others. That is the nature of Chesed, gifts of lovingkindness.
My first memory of this sort of Chesed giving comes at about age 3. I am visiting my grandparents and I have one of the hard candies that we are allowed after dinner. In my ecstasy of the abundance of having dinner of my favourite foods with my favourite people, I offer my hard candy to my grandmother, insisting that I want her to have it. She grins that mischievous knowing grin that only my grandma and I knew, our secret smile together, and she takes it, unwraps it, all the while smiling at me.
And she winks as she pops it into her mouth. I remember he telling my mother how lovely and generous her daughter is, and my mother dismissing us both, the 1959 precursor to ‘the hand’—“whatever”, she says.
No, this was not ‘whatever’. This was genuine joy. This was the pure knowledge of abundance, and the best way I could give thanks for that abundance of love and food was to offer my one candy to my grandmother. It somehow made me feel complete, that the cycle of giving contained gratitude and more giving.
I still feel that way every morning when I wake up. I lie in my ‘sky room’ bed, a day bed set in my enclosed balcony with a panoramic view of the City of Vancouver at my feet. Overhead, clouds drift, as if I am in the treehouse of my childhood dreams. Nothing surpasses this feeling that I have been given the simplest of gifts of abundance; a room to lie in, the sky as my ceiling.
What I want to do each day is somehow come closer to creating this sense of abundance for those who are looking for it. That may take the form of insuring that I am not taking up a seat in the front of the bus where seniors and the disabled need to sit, or making intentional eye contact and say a few words with the clerks in stores I shop at, continue to pursue my studies toward a career in pastoral counseling, and making real plans to begin offering service now, including creating my own music and playing in ensembles and orchestras.
This evening, as I was having a long distance conversation with my mussar chevruta about Chesed, I sat in my treehouse office and watched absently in the window as crows gathered to roost for the evening.
In East Vancouver, this is quite a sight, and especially so tonight. In the ribboning sunset of colours, I observed three different clouds of birds arise from the Arbutus Ridge and begin to rise in a swirl of black bodies. The cloud shifted now left, now right, now up, now back upon itself. What was happening? It felt like I did inside myself, looking for the leader, first one, then another, no one agreeing on the direction, like a school of fish darting about in the sky, confused. They had to move on at some point, it would be dark soon. Eventually, pulled by the need to roost in the Grandview Divide, they flew East and landed. The next two clouds of birds that arose did the same this evening. Confusion. Who was the leader, and what was their ultimate destination? The back and forth was senseless, they would end up in the Divide no matter which bird was chosen, and they did end up there at last.
Confusion about who is in charge can make coming home to roost difficult. The nice thing about an orchestra is that there is a conductor, and all that skill and strength of character that each artist brings is channeled into a satisfying performance. In fact, it is sharing of abundance at its best.
With the intentional cooperation of many individuals, musical ensembles become the suppliers of the conduits to our deepest desires and selves. Next time you attend a concert, whether it is an ensemble or a large symphony, recognize the exorbitant individual effort and cooperative giving each player has gifted you with. Perhaps this will open the doors to your desire to share whatever abundance you may find in your life, and pass it on to others in gratitude.
Remembering Sandy Hook School
Remember the 60’s? I was recently watching a fundraising telethon on PBS of music from that era. When the music was new, I was an American, and just on the cusp of being old enough to grasp what our country was doing in Viet Nam. The nightly TV news report, the litany of how many dead, wounded or missing, was one of the seldom times my family sat tamed of our domestic agitations, and watched quietly together, in awe and touched respect. The sense that this report could turn a tumultuous family away from its turmoil and outward toward the greater tragedy before us, was a formative testimonial in my life.
The outrage and tears I felt, the Jewish ‘veygeshry’ of my mother, and clucking tongue of my father, my brother’s chin quivering just a little, told me that there is always work to be done that is bigger than any one of us. Our smallness was exposed.
I did go with my mother to political meetings, dressed in solidarity with the antiwar protestors I saw on TV. My best friends grew up in Topanga Canyon, not far from the infamous Mermaid Café, hippies abounded in my high school. In Hebrew School, we talked about Civil Rights and created charitable events to raise money for HeadStart and other new programs for inner city youth and families. I was a Girl Scout, and we made Christmas hampers for inner city families.
There was a social consciousness everywhere I turned. The world looked good, our actions were making positive change. I Cycled for Life for cleaner air, chose Biology as my major, intending to help the environment by providing research evidence of how we could intelligently preserve our planet.
Finally, the end of the war in Viet Nam, the withdrawal of troops, came. I remember everyone wept with joy. Peace at last. Perhaps not.
This past summer I was a Chaplain at a Veterans Administration Hospital. One of my offerings was a music program for a substance rehab program. The majority of participants were—Viet Nam war veterans. Yes, still, since 1968, they were just getting support to process the traumas they suffered, and the decades of self-medication by recreational drugs they had all subsisted on since returning from the war.
Here were the men, only one woman came, who I had seen on TV back then, sloshing through rice paddies, jumping from helicopters, slashing brush with machetes, clad in army fatigues and black smudge on their faces. They became the face of the violence in Viet Nam, not the government that sent them there. Returning home, they were neglected and even abused, by their home country. The memories they shared in group, often stimulated by the music we shared, were as fresh as if they had just been in ‘Nam. We were there for each other, finally. The gratitude always filled the therapy room. I was glad to be with them, even if it was over 40 years later.
How is this tied to the Sandy Hook massacre? The violence goes on: this time with civilian guns. Will it take the large-scale national protests of the Viet Nam era to push the government to put an end to this domestic war that has no declaration except when tragedies like Sandy Hook happen?
Perhaps a return that protest era is the way to go, this time to create a comprehensive gun control law to stop the violence: In the words of Rabbi Arthur Waskow:
“Hey Hey, NRA, How many kids did you kill today?
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18.
Plus 9 grown-ups. Teachers, mostly.
These numbers red for the bloodshed of today.
Hey Hey, NRA, How many kids did you kill today?
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18.
I don’t yet have the names of those children or their teachers yet…
Gatherings utterly committed to nonviolence, which the NRA is not —
Sitting down, sitting in, chanting the names of those 18 children over and
over again, interspersed with the chant above (resurrected from the
nonviolent campaign against the Vietnam War, which pointlessly killed
50,000 Americans and a million Vietnamese)
Risking arrest — DEMANDING that the NRA publicly and clearly abandon and
reverse its opposition to a Federal comprehensive gun-control law.”
Be horrified, sad, compassionate. Can you take action too?
I have always been baffled by the complexity of this week’s Torah reading, Vayetze, the story of Jacob and Laban. I’ve heard the tale a million times, beginning in Jewish nursery school, with the Jacob’s ladder dream. Then, I guess as older kids we heard about the trick of giving Jacob Leah as his first wife, and how he had to work an additional seven years in order to keep Rachel, his first love.
In my books anyway, that didn’t earn Laban the bad reputation he was supposed to have. The depth of the sheep rearing part of the story wasn’t taught, maybe because the technical details didn’t resonate with my very suburban and later, urban, teachers. Basically then, Jacob had been simply ascribed to be an astute sheep breeder, and that was all that could be wrung from that section.
Upon my reading this week in preparation for Shabbat, I saw it all differently. First of all, I read a new translation, the New Jewish Publication Society’s gender-neutral version. So roles such as shepherd, could be a woman’s job as well as a man’s. What I started to see was two cunning men, tricksters in their own rights, Jacob and Laban.
The story begins with Jacob being sent away to Charan by Isaac after he had tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing of the first born that really belonged to Esau, his older brother. And that came after Jacob had previously drawn Esau into a bargain of giving away his birthright for a cup of soup. How? Esau was starving, and Jacob was a sharp; possibly even cunning as he was, he was surprised that Esau was so easily swayed to pay such a high price for a meal. Weren’t there any fruit trees or nuts or dates around for Esau, and how did he manage to come home empty-handed after a hunting expedition? Anyway, I understand this set up well after living in New York City for a year: I am sure I came close to being sold the proverbial Brooklyn Bridge many times while I was there, trusting honesty while being offered sham goods from desperate people vying for a living alongside millions of others offering the same wares.
Jacob meets Rachel and Leah in Charan, and their father Laban, who is Jacob’s mother Rebecca’s brother. Laban is also a trickster. He sees Jacob’s love for Rachel the younger daughter, and capitalizes on it. After laboring for seven years in order to marry Rachel, Laban marries him to Leah, only afterward reading Jacob the family fine print: oldest daughters get married first. Ouch. Now Jacob may have Rachel, if he is willing to work another seven years.
How do Jacob, Leah and Rachel feel about their father all these years, I wonder? The two sisters are in an extreme competition with each other now by bearing sons for Jacob’s favour. Laban and Jacob become enmeshed in their own competition, Laban thinking he will outwit Jacob by offering him all the spotted sheep he can breed, and secretly stealing the breed stock. As the sisters up their antes by offering up their hand-maids for producing sons with Jacob, Jacob ups his profits with Laban by using specially mottled sticks to increase the number of spotted sheep he can breed from stock Laban left behind.
Finally, after Rachel, who herself has been barren, bares a son, Joseph, the whole household decides it’s had enough of Laban. It is time to leave.
They pack their things and go without a formal goodbye. They take everything with them. What has happened? After so many years of intrigue and oneupmanship, strife, hurt feelings, and purposeful subterfuge, the plug is pulled. The classic, dysfunctional, co-dependent family begins to be aware of the downward spiral it is in. Somehow, the turning point is when Rachel, who has been barren throughout the whole childbearing competition, has a child. It seems that this has been the fulcrum of the situation, her barrenness and pain was what kept the system going. Once she bore Jacob a son, the spell was broken. They left their tormentor behind.
Interestingly enough, there is one more piece of evidence of Laban’s almost sadistic hold on this family: Rachel takes her father’s household idols when they leave. Why? To show him that he is nothing? That she is taking his power with her, and away from him? One of the most beautifully poignant scenes in Scripture is that of Rachel sitting on a camel bag with her skirts spread modestly around her while her father ransacks the camp and that tent looking for his idols. She tells him she can’t get up because she is ‘in the way of women’, and enjoys watching him rant and panic, while she sits coquettishly on that camel bag she’d stuffed with the objects of his disarray.
What does this paraha teach us? It shows us what so many of us fall blindly into, those uncomfortable relationships with difficult people. Can we learn from this story how to recognize that we are in one of these relationship systems, and understand that finding the source of the energy that keeps the system alive will allow the possibility of resolution and freedom?
Laban follows Jacob’s family, insists they should have told him they were leaving, that he would have sent them off with songs and music. In his agitation, he will not leave them be until a pact is made. Stones are erected, this is Jacob’s side, this is Laban’s. They break bread together and then part. As we say these days, clear boundaries have been set with difficult people.
Why did Jacob stay with Laban so long, he could have fled years earlier? He needed to learn something there. In Kabbalistic terms, he needed to do the work to release holy sparks that were trapped in Laban’s household. This sort of repair of releasing lost sparks to their origin increases the flow of shefa, and that keeps us in balance with Unity, too.
When we are somewhere difficult and we don’t know why, perhaps this story will come to mind as a way to know that there is a purpose which we may not see immediately, and will eventually find, when we are ready to see it.
Miracles Do Happen—
In Medieval times, the mystical language and meaning of Kabbalistic writings were purposely kept inscrutable and shrouded in the language of Torah and Talmud study. Why? Because it was believed that personal mystical experiences as described in the ancient scriptures were particular to Biblical times. Those sorts of engagements with the divine, it was determined, ended with the Biblical era. For a contemporary person to have expounded upon having had such experiences, would be just grounds for invalidating the scholarly works describing them.
Mystical engagements were nonetheless, written about by early Kabbalists, in the form of metaphors and secret codes. Later in the Middle Ages, it became more acceptable to describe the nature of these experiences. A system of sefirot, or containers that held nothing, became a flow chart showing how holy energy flows from a source above Heaven, to the very manifest of creation on earth. In fact, our actions affect the abundance of this holy energy flow. Observing mitzvoth is one way to increase the flow. In the 19th century, with the drive to make Judaism a rationalist religion, all of this great mystery talk was once again devalued and forgotten, along with much of the meaning behind actions of mitzvoth.
In the Jewish Renewal movement, as with other Chassidic movements, the intention is to not only recapture the spiritual concepts of Kabbalism, but to return to the beliefs that we are the determinants of how bountiful the flow of shefa, divine energy, is in our lives and in our world.
This week, I witnessed two miracles, two events that five years ago, I thought would never happen in my lifetime. One was the triumph of my friend, Paul Caune, who will be receiving one of the medals cast in honour of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Paul has relentlessly pursued every avenue available to promote equal rights for persons with disabilities in British Columbia.
Why is this worthy of a medal from the Queen, and why do I see it as a miracle? Because five years ago, Paul, who has muscular dystrophy, was confined and live out his life in an institution for people with severe physical disabilities. He was parked there after months of hospitalization and promises that he would be discharged to live independently in his local community. He was a man who was unable to breathe on his own being transferred to an institution that would no doubt have been his final resting place.
Eventually, a housing society reached out to him, and he was able to live in his own accessible apartment in the community at large. This experience informed him that it was possible for people in institutions living with physical barriers to have community housing. He turned his newfound energies toward putting the message out that people with disabilities have the same rights as anyone else, and being housed in unsuitable care situations is not necessary.
A man with a mission, he became the Executive Director of Civil Rights Now! and began advocating to the health authorities and legislators with his convictions, speaking with peers and their supporters, writing for print media, and appearing on television and radio.[i]
The outcome? Well, try standing up to a government agency. Where does your energy come from? Think of David and Goliath; standing up to a giant takes some faith that the outcome will be worth it, although it is deadly dangerous. It takes faith, a flow of energy that finds its source, like a circuit that becomes complete and can light up a city. This month, community roundtable engagements are slated for input on the redevelopment of the George Pearson Centre/Dogwood Lodge site. We can help determine that the new developments will have barrier-free community housing mixed in with standard housing units, and no new institutions.
Someone listened, because two days ago, he was informed that he will be receiving one of the Queen’s medals. Kol HaKavod, Paul! Was this his intention? No, he did not do this to receive a medal, he did it because it was the right thing to do. Lives will be improved, and he still is on the campaign to get equal rights for voters with disabilities.
The second miracle? This past week, my Recovery Narrative Project writers spoke to an overenrolled room of health care professional students at the University of British Columbia. This was my day of seeing the manifestation of years of hoping and praying that the mental health consumers in our Province will finally be headliners, and not on the margins, of health care education programs. The day was called, ‘Allies in Health Care’[ii], and it was all about bringing the voices of the many patient interest groups, in addition to ours, into partnership with health care decision-makers.
This was a miracle too. Historically, mental health consumers were not partners in decisions regarding their care. In fact, decision-making rights could be stripped with the stroke of a pen, being committed, or ‘pinked’ as it is called, when a physician deemed someone was not speaking or acting in ways they believed they should. Institutionalization, with its complicated 250-year long history, was one outcome of being committed: being compliant was required to receive help and relief from symptoms. The stigma assigned to having a mental illness included having substandard housing, as well as marginalization away from health care dollars for care and research.
I became an advocate of the patient’s voice and a writing instructor. My primary mission was to awaken mental health service consumers to the value of their own voice, through learning how to write from their hearts. Like Paul, I too created an independent program, backed by supporters in the community at large, and poured myself into any channels I could find as an outlet for the wonderfully honest and important stories of the writers.
Who would have guessed from those past draconian days, that a small cadre of folks who were deemed mentally ill could be panel-speakers to an overbooked University room, educating student health care professionals about their life experiences and how we can partner for good mental health outcomes.
Our good intentions made this happen: The intentions to create a bridge between patients and care providers, communities and citizens, of all abilities. There is so much more to do, the door is opening, the flow of energy is passing through.
[i] See Paul’s story in the Tyee:
[ii] Allies in Health Fair 2012:
Seeking Gd’s Face
“Are ya gonna give me some money now?”
“I have some plums.”
“I don’t like plums, do you have any bananas?”
“Sorry, I have plums, and I am happy to give you some.”
“No, I only take bananas…or money. Are ya gonna give me some money now?”
At that point, I fell from Heaven, the holy mystery of offering sustenance was lost here.
This scene happened as I was leaving my local food Co-op after picking up a few groceries. At first, I didn’t notice anything unusual from the encounter with the young man, except a Twilight Zone-like twinge as I shrugged and walked away. My personal policy is to not give money, especially to someone who is clearly using like this fellow; I offer food or transit passes. This interaction left me cold.
A day or so later I realized I was avoiding all panhandling people in wheelchairs and scooters, and those slumped against walls. Even avoiding eye contact. This was not the usual me.
I phoned my good friend who is an extreme civil rights activist for voters with disabilities and shared my new insight: people with disabilities are marginalized by society and governments because they are their own worst enemy. It is one thing to ask for equality, and even for charity, but all I could feel now after the plum affair was ‘beggars can’t be choosers’! I had fallen down into the realm of depersonalizing the very real people I live with every day. My friend was patient, especially considering I had missed the point of his work; they are panhandling simply because they are disabled, not necessarily because they deserve it or bear some moral failing.
That Twilight Zone twinge kept poking me. As I read Arthur Green’s book, Seek My Face for an assignment, I found the pathway back to my special place of Heichalot, heavenly mystery. He tells how Reb Nahman Kossover, a merchant and Kabbalist, hired an assistant to look at during work, so he could remember the name of Gd by looking at the assistant’s face.
We are all b’tselem Elohim, created in Gd’s image. I know that: in fact I’ve always lived that, having skipped the phase where children learn from their families and on school playgrounds who looks pretty, fat, cute, foreign, cockeyed, handsome, crippled. Those outer husks never really registered with me, until I met Mr. Bananas-or-Money-Only.
Had I been in Heichalot all those years until then? Is ignorance bliss? The young man who preferred bananas was my teacher. Who was being picky, me or him? I can’t change the healthcare or social services system overnight, but I can see him as my neighbor, and my reflection. The young man’s challenge to my platitudes caused me to seek a way back from the depths I had fallen to, a Merkavah, holy chariot, back to Heaven.
Next time I was at London Drugs, I bought some boxes of cereal bars and a pack of transit passes. I carry a few of each in my handbag now whenever I go out, because once again I am able to see Gd’s face in my neighbors’.
photos courtesy corbisimages.com, http://ancienthebrewwordsofwisdom.blogspot.ca/
Are You Prepared?
It was hard to find a good place to write onboard this Alaskan cruise ship. I finally found a spot to sit; it had been empty every time I passed earlier; too dark, too cold, and on the leeward side away from the sunset. Then, boom, thronging guests in formal-night dress converged: the moon has appeared, spectacular, over the glaciated mountain ridge in the view windows. Not just any moon; a full Alaskan moon, disk round as any voluptuous indigenous piece found in the many galleries on shore side.
Photos are snapped through the window; people mill all around in full dress, and I am here typing with my gingerale. Where are you right now?
It is Elul, and I am reading Alan Lew’s book, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared”. Those of us reading this book are on the journey from Tisha B’Av to Sukkot, the historical Jewish communal passage from destruction to reflection and return. We are taking the personal passage of finding how to let go of what has taken us away from where we want to be, and finding our way to return.
I am returning to Vancouver after a remarkable year of learning and growing in the challenging people cauldron of New York. There, I saw face to face my core and values and realized it was time to return home, both internally and externally. This has been my time of teshuvah, of letting things go, get messy if need be, and stand again in the source that nourishes me.
As a Jewish woman, to confess, I have had trouble with this idea of ‘teshuvah’ and ‘return’ at the High Holydays my whole life. “What did I do wrong?” I would ask myself every year. And I easily found so many misdemeanors: I did not exercise as much as I wished to, said something I shouldn’t have, passed up opportunities to relax, was too serious, or did not follow up on potential relationships. The daily grind of remorse only seemed to make me more alienated and disconnected from myself.
One year, a dear Rabbi friend counseled me that I am one of the people who reflect enough, implying ‘too much’, year round, and not to turn myself inside out during the Yamim Noraim. I gave myself a break, he was right, I did look inwardly too much. This year, though, has been different: I left my familiar places and people, and went off on my own, intentionally so.
I have learned the power of having every decision I make as my responsibility: I make them with a lot of self care these days. When I miss the mark, I own it, and this for me, has been the opening for trust in the process of teshuvah.
What is my take on this annual process that we Jews engage in, more or less? I say ‘more or less’, because there are two kinds of folks: those, like myself, who feel the gravitational pull of introspection over the High Holidays: and then those who at the other extreme who feel this as an annual time of obligation, guilt, or humor (think of the episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, where the characters decide to save money by buying scalped High Holiday tickets).
Here is my take, this year:
We have in ourselves what we deeply dream of doing and being, we all have that. Can you remember what yours is? Really, remember now. Okay; and where are you now? Are you there close to that dream in your life? Yes? No? Are you sure this is your dream? Why not. That is what teshuvah is about: Why not.
What caused you to stray from yourself? A better paying career, self doubt? I say this because who else will convince you that you can’t do what you want. It’s not the outer voices of others; you can pass those up. It’s your own voice: yes, that one inside you. This is hard to consider, but please do for a moment. What if you spent this month with, as the Mateh Moshe proposed, an hour each day set aside to look inward?
Okay, that was a large idea. Do not attempt this without some guidance from a meditation teacher, or in community prayer! What may come your way is a landslide of feelings, and what you will need is a method for living with them, in peace. Meditation and prayer teach you to notice things as they arise and let them go their way, much like being afloat and observing objects drift by without grabbing on to them, staying afloat just as you are.
This is a good month to adopt a contemplative practice, and I say practice, because as you find your preferred place and time to meet with yourself and Gd, you will be teaching your body as well as your soul to look forward to this special time. Neuroscience is full of studies that show how adaptable our plastic brains are, and that they change as we change our habits. As we all know now, well-used neural pathways become the most natural ones for us. Elul is our annual invitation to begin the process of internal change.
During the year, when I sit as a Chaplain with patients who are suffering from spiritual distress, from a sense of loss of connection to themselves or others, or Gd, I ask them a simple question: can you recall a time when you did feel connected? Invariably, everyone can. This is the Gd moment. It is the moment when you know again who you are, in a way that is so natural you are not even thinking about who you are, you just ‘are’. A sense of peace and gratitude replaces the loss and disconnect at this memory. This is what we can hope to recreate intentionally every day, to reinforce our path to returning there, to our Gd place. This is a contemplative practice.
Another way I do this, is by playing my oboe everyday. Something happens when I play that instrument, so that no matter how fractured I feel, how much I am, as the Torah says, of ‘trafe da’at’, a torn mind, I become whole again.
I experienced the intensity of how this works for me the other week, a time of my toughest inner wrestling in my decision to return home to study. I went to my last oboe lesson, my mind gone in ‘trafe da’at’ and barely able to focus on how to get to the studio, but I did indeed arrive. My teacher finished blessing me with her wishes for my success in my decisions. Then we played an intense round of warm ups in unison, and by the end of a grueling ‘arpeggio boot camp’ drill, I was whole again. I had little time to reflect on what had just shifted inside as we moved into playing Lewandowski’s ‘Kol Nidrei’ together in duet. All I knew was that once again, oboe playing was repairing the tears.
What had happened was that my intense drive and love of playing the instrument overrode every intrusive thought and memory that tried to trip me up. I let nothing interfere with my intentions to play, and ditched any upwelling distractions, like others telling me what a folly it is to play such a devilish instrument. This is the ultimate meditative coming-home focus for me. The wholeness and love I felt after this lesson sealed the deal. I had returned to that place where I felt connected, just as I had counseled others to do, and decided I was going home. Gd was calling me by way of arpeggio boot camp.
I am now afloat, literally, on a cruise ship headed down Alaska’s Inside Passage toward Vancouver. It is close to bliss for me: the Alaskan landscape slides by under that full disk moon, a live jazz ensemble opens another set, passengers stroll about in their dinner formal wear and cheery talk. I enjoy their ambiance, and keep typing as they float by. I am heading home. Return to what you love. You can return home, too.
“When the Praises go up, the Blessings come down,” and so began the Pastor’s sermon today.
I came to this Harlem African American church today because I am in a course at the Union Theological Seminary in Art and Worship. Our assignment was to pick any type of ‘performance’, here defined in the abstract, and attend three sessions and report to the class. Some people chose ‘architecture’ as their performance study, others visual arts or dance. Art is performed even when static. I chose to follow African American Gospel Music, believing that there is something there that is so compelling not only to its congregants, but to myself, and I wanted to bring that to my practice of prayer leadership and sacred music.
I took a long walk through Harlem, it was 10:30 am, and shops were still closed. The only people on the streets seemed to be heading to one church or another, including me. I arrived before the service was to start, and my anticipation of being seen as an outsider or gawker, were immediately allayed by the women who were greeting each other by the door. I entered their sanctuary as comfortably as I would any Jewish synagogue, and picked a pew to sit in.
I watched people arrive, there were women ushers in white nurses garb, white stockings, shoes and gloves. It was Women’s Month, and there was a great deal of pride amongst the ushers. There was a mix of people dressed up and dressed down, many women with fine hats and men in suits. I noticed another white woman walk up the aisle to the choir loft, she was young and wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. It was a cold day, and perhaps she was keeping warm before singing.
The sanctuary started to buzz, and the pastors came to the altar and knelt, and then sat. They were dressed very casually, and it was strange how the woman pastor’s white clerical collar showed through the neck of her hooded sweatshirt. Why the collar in such a casual church where everyone wore street wear?
The music started off very slowly, the brush-stick of the drum set accompanied a few slow piano hymns. The pace picked up as the pastors began to take turns speaking. Some announcements of upcoming events, then, the music picked up in tempo again. The theme for the day came from John Chapter 27: Jesus foreshadows his death, much like Martin Luther King also did, as many leaders who buck the trends and are agents of change inevitably do. And he said, the hour is come upon me, and rather than avoid it, I am going head on into it. Facing destiny, finding the truth in taking the plunge, rather than running away. I am hoping to sing the Jennifer Warnes/Leonard Cohen song, “The Song of Bernadette” whose lyrics tell us, sometimes we fall, sometimes we fly/ we mostly fall—we mostly run. The parable says, don’t run; stay around and mend the damage that we’ve done.
A woman soloist opened up her voice, and my body sensed where it came from, those round gourds that reside in the back of the pharynx that I am learning to find. Well, she knew hers, and could easily and confidently and frankly cut loose with her vocal praises of Gd, and that ease and comfort and frankness translated to the whole congregation. We all stood and swayed and brought hands together to her music, sang with her and then applauded, not just for her, but for Gd. We were asked again to applaud, to applaud Gd. Who else could give us such a gift? And how could we not praise Gd for the many gifts we have, as we do when we are in a house of prayer singing together? The pastor asked us to greet everyone around us with, “Good Morning”. Later, it would be with handshakes, and then hugs. The physicality of the singing was manifested in the physicality of our recognizing each other.
By this time, I had the epiphany that the casual garb was not the norm here: the hooded sweatshirts were being worn in solidarity with Treyvon Martin. As I understood this internally, the room began to change. The senior pastor now came to the lectern and addressed the room. He welcomed everyone to “Hoody Sunday”, two weeks before Easter, the fifth Sunday of Lent. His words were like the crescendo of the service, beginning with the story of Trayvon, a young black man who was walking home with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, whose only crime was walking and wearing a hooded sweatshirt—and being black.
The hooded sweatshirt was created in the early 20th century for outside workers, for comfort them from cold outdoor working conditions. Today, the hoodies comforted thousands of people who wore them in solidarity with Trayvon. The message from the pastor was not to merely talk about the solution to this problem, and surprisingly, not to point the finger at others. Instead, in a powerful and unexpected leading note of ideas, he showed the congregation how to take action in their own backyard. In that very neighborhood only a few nights before, a young black man was also shot, by another black youth. Racism is not the only problem, inattention to our youth is. And not just in that neighborhood, but all over the nation. Talking about it doesn’t solve the problem, we are a nation crippled in “Paralysis by Analysis” he declared, Amen!
And in the pith and power of his speech came solutions, actions: “Readers are Leaders” get rid of the wii’s and ‘grand theft auto’ games. The rhymes became poetry became metaphors became psalms became more music. The organ underscored his words, the Amen’s underscored the determination of the hooded crowd. Another dynamite soprano unleashed our voices through hers, and the collection plates circulated.
But money wasn’t all this pastor collected. He had the children in the room come up and kneel at the altar. Then he called up all the men in the room to stand behind them in solidarity. Then he called up the families to stand up behind them in solidarity. Then he did something that I cannot applaud more for: he named three of the men to be in charge and form a group to mentor the youth of the congregation, and that they were to collect names and set a time to meet and not leave the church that day, until they reported that information to him. Action, and a plan; not words, not analysis, not a study. Action. Mentorship, stewardship, care for youth, who all need care, no matter what church they go to. It is a difficult world.
That pastor took a risk: who wants to be singled out in church and charged with a responsibility like that? Isn’t that up to the parents? He made them take responsibilities; don’t they pay him to do that? And wasn’t it about someone else doing the wrongs to them, so why blame ourselves? So many questions, analysis leads to paralysis.
What did music do for me today? It showed me how to comfort, to lead, to pray, to take action, to empower. It opened my vision to the power of adding music to words and ideas and greetings and actions. I saw how music changes attitudes and how important the role of the musician is in creating religious community.
“If My Prayer is Fluent in My Mouth…”
There are a lot of questions these days asking, just what it is that Jewish Cantors do? I say here Jewish Cantors, because one of the things I’ve learned this year is that other faiths, such as the Catholic faith, have Cantors, too.
As a child, I remember that the Cantor and Rabbi were an indispensable team at our synagogue. Although they both wore big black robes and tall hats when they led the services, they had different jobs on the bimah. The Rabbi told us things, gave impromptu teachings about the prayers we were about to sing, interjected jokes to liven the pace of the service, and of course, gave his sermon, and the important job of announcing page numbers.
The Cantor also wore a black robe and tall hat, but he seemed more mysterious. He rarely spoke, yet his voice almost effortlessly filled the sanctuary, as if out of nowhere, in a way that grabbed us from wherever our minds had wandered, into the flow and ecstasy of big, full, rich, fat notes. It was a strange contrast to me, those big ideas in words, and the big feelings in voice.
I especially looked forward hearing the Cantor at the High Holidays. And I admit, the average Jewish kid does not feel this way about going to High Holiday services…or Hebrew School…or Bar/Bat Mitzvah class. I did. So, now that you know, I can tell you that although during the Services, I may have wandered up the aisle and out into the lobby of the movie theater our congregation rented for the High Holiday crowd, I would keep my ears open for that voice back inside, the chanting that only happened at that special time of year. The sounds of the Cantor’s High Holiday Nusah.
What was it I heard that captivated me? It was the particularly warm rich sound of our Cantor’s voice. He had moments of grand climbing ascents and descents, but in a round full voice that almost floated through the air. I loved that sound, would come back into the theater and plunk down in any vacant seat and just listen. I would wonder if anyone else enjoyed or heard it as I did, in my core, in my cells, in my kishkes, resting there for another day and time.
These were the sounds of Holiness, they happened on the holiest days of the year. I looked forward to that every Fall; when school was starting, when we got new outfits to wear for the High Holidays–usually something woolen, which was never right, since this was the San Fernando Valley and it could often be in the 80’s and hot! We also got out of school, and could feel a specialness with our other Hebrew School friends, who were also uniquely out of school for those few days. And, I got to hang out in that air conditioned movie theater-turned-sanctuary; and be coddled with the visceral journey, from reassuring pleading to solace and redemption, the Cantor’s voice took us with him. It was a good trip.
It was good enough that when I grew up enough to make my own decisions a few years ago, I decided to play the instrument that I knew would make that sound with me, my oboe. I have no regrets other than having waited so long to do it. Moving along the trajectory from my holding the music in my core, to several years of lay prayer leadership, to playing the oboe, I’ve come face to face with the possibility of training my own voice to be as inviting and restorative as my Cantor’s had been.
I may or may not become a vocal virtuoso as he had been. I do know that our intentions when we speak and when we sing carry great power. I know that understanding silence does, too. I am learning the skills to balance in prayer leadership a wholeness and sensitivity of being, above and beyond virtuosic ability in singing. That comes with the confidence built from mastery of voice and training to fall into the prayer itself.
As a prayer leader, engaging with the words and intentions of the prayer comes through understanding the language it is written in, the poetry and pronunciation of the words as lyrics, the silences as well as the sounds, the halakhic and historic reasons for the prayer. Truly understanding them intellectually and technically brings them to life. Owning them, feeling the importance of them, and the genuine possibility of bringing others into sharing that experience, is what Cantors as prayer leaders, do.
This requires specialized training. I say this as an answer to my own questions, and those of others who wonder why we bother with all this training in Cantorial School. Why can’t anyone with a good voice be our Shaliach Tzibur, our Ba’al/a Tefillah, our cantor? From deep within the walls of the Seminary, I am learning how much depth there is to leading others into their prayer moments. There is a difference between a catchy tune and a prayer. We do need to enjoy services, or no one will come to them. We also need to have sacred space and time to come together and let our hair down, and share moments of joy and pain and gratitude together from our within places. Too many words, or too many melodies rob us of the richness and depth we can attain together in prayer. A Cantor knows where those places are; in addition to language and text study, we learn to find those holy places within ourselves, and we learn from the gifts offered by our mentors and coaches who show us how to make it a natural practice.
Returning to the quotation I began with, “If my prayer is fluent in my mouth…”, brings us to another aspect of prayer leadership, in the role of prayers for healing. The source of this quotation is an anecdote from Berakhot 34b. In the anecdote, the son of Rabbi Gamliel falls ill. He sends two scholars to R. Hanina ben Dosa to ask him to pray for his son. R. ben Dosa goes an upper chamber and prays for him, and sends the scholars back to R. Gamliel. Before they leave, they ask R. ben Dosa, if he is a prophet? His answer is:
“I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I learned this from experience. If my prayer is fluent in my mouth, I know that it is accepted; but if not, I know that it is rejected.”
The two scholars note the time of the prayer, and upon returning to R. Gamliel, find out that that is the precise moment the son’s fever leaves, and he asks for water to drink.
What happened here? the power of a prayer that was fluent: natural, spontaneous, intentional. Where does this come from? not, as R. ben Dosa says, from any innate giftedness, not from raw talent, not something inherited in his DNA: it comes from a place of familiarity, of a spontaneity and trust. Prayer can be a practice that becomes so familiar that we mold and bend with it, much like a dancer who upon entering her studio, feels her body know it is once again time to engage, how my routine of soaking the reeds and putting together the joints of my instrument awaken my anticipation of the mix of pleasure and work that lay ahead in that day’s practice, it is what our most valued and revered artists have capitalized on, hours and hours of engagement. Intentional passionate engagement, until mastery, whether it’s a violin, piano, voice, photography, writing, figure skating, or yes–prayer.
Yes, as author Geoff Colvin tells us, talent is overrated. Yes, one can have a great voice but this alone does not make a great prayer leader, whether it is community prayer, or personal prayers in a healing relationship. Voice, education, training, dedication, mentoring, and practice are behind Cantors whose prayers are fluent in their mouth.
Cantors are a precious line of prayer professionals: From their mouth, to Gd’s ears.
“And the Red Sea Parted”
This past week was one of great anticipation for me. It was the week leading up to Shabbat Shirah, the portion of the Torah that describes the parting of the Sea of Reeds (‘Red Sea’), the passing through of the Israelites, their joyful song of liberation, and the final demise of Pharaoh.
I looked forward to this reading, marking a moment of affirmation in my first year of Cantorial studies here in New York. What parasha could be more about my journey than that of Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. The week began with my student ma’mad duties and I created the opportunity to lead a musical morning service. Moments ago, the week of Song ended with the victory of the NY Giants in the Super Bowl.
I usually don’t link Torah, music, and football, but this week, I did. As an instrumental musician, I relished the opportunity to organize a prayer service that could include instruments, and on Tuesday, we brought in the morning with hand drums, an Argentinian cuatro guitar, and melodies that lead us up the steps of kavvana into our daily keva of the Shaharit service. I was able to play my djembe drum alongside a hand-drumming friend from another synagogue, while also doing my ma’amad duty to shepherd the service in on time. Where was my oboe for this one? in its case for another time when I am not overseeing the service and I can bring it out for musical inspiration.
I also had the privilege of hosting a service for a Rabbinical student who was giving his senior sermon. I had not met him in person before; we emailed a lot during the week to iron out details of the very brief mincha afternoon service he would be leading and offering his d’var Torah in. When we met, moments before the service, I saw he was my age. And as I listened to his words of Torah after he’d led the service, I knew it was besheret that we would be working together. He spoke about the parting of the Sea of Reeds, about the grace of Moses in allowing his arms to be supported by others when he grew tired.
And most resonant for me was his description of how the Reed Sea closed behind the Israelites, and they were now faced with a new destiny. Here, he focused on the Israelites’ infamous 40 years of wandering. Was it really wandering?
Those of us who begin later may seem lost, yet with those figurative, and maybe literal, 40 years of experiences, we later starters have a fullness with which to appreciate the richness and wisdom of our traditions in a way that cannot be transmitted solely through texts or musical training. When I turned 50, I bought a necklace with a fob that says, “Not all who wander are lost”, and his words truly phoned that message home. Are we lost, or are we found?
Shabbat Shirah then came, and I craved more words, interestingly enough, rather than a musical Shabbat service, here in New York. I was offered an aliyah, without realizing that I would be saying the b’rachot for the reading of the Song of the Reed Sea. Enjoying yet more of the synchronicities of the week, as I stood next to the reader at the amud, I took in all I could of the beautifully laid out acrostic of words in the scrolls, which she read in the Sephardic cantillation. My week of song had unfolded well.
After Shabbat, I assumed the serendipities of song had come to a close, but I was mistaken. I had a lot of work to catch up on, including continuing to imbue myself toward piano and solfeggio recognition by ear, and spent much of the day literally hugging the piano upstairs, drawing the resonant pitches into myself.
I also knew it was Super Bowl Sunday, and that the NY Giants were playing their biggest rivals, the NE Patriots. I remembered football games from growing up in Southern California, and knew the game would be slow compared to the adrenalin-laced action of Stanley Cup Hockey Finals. But, I wanted to be part of ‘New Yo’k’. I quit my tasks near the end of game time and joined the gang of students in front of a Big Screen, picked my way through the vestiges of wings and meatballs, got directed to the barrel of iced beers, and settled in, and managed to control my quips about hockey pucks vs footballs.
In the end, the Giants won, pushed to victory by Ahmad Bradshaw’s bum-planting goal. The kicker for me: as Bradshaw sat momentarily triumphant on the ground the announcer told the world: “Yes, the Red Sea parted–and Bradshaw came through!” The Giants came from behind to win.
Yes, indeed, the Sea parted. Our team came from behind to win. Did the announcer go to shule yesterday to hear that parasha read? or did he bring a little bit of shule to the world?
This past week a YouTube video that must have gone viral through the Jewish community, arrived in my inbox from many diverse sources. It was a video of a young Israeli singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, in Hebrew*.
The first wave of emails I got with this link came with emphatic subject lines to ‘watch this!’: I didn’t really look, though, until the link came from a dear friend back home in Vancouver.
I needed both the message from my friend, and also the message from Mr. Cohen. I watched the video stream into my view in rapt attention, and the gooey trappings of the talent show faded to the background. Because it was in Hebrew, I could let go of the familiar sound and imagery of Cohen’s words, and allow just his music to sail into a novel understanding of the pathos of the song.
The youth who sang seemed too young to have lived Cohen’s poetry, although he brought a youthful fever to the song that kept me on edge, his voice always near the breaking point, but not quite. It was a cliffhanger. He filled his container to the brim, without fear of breaking or overflowing. That is what I have been seeking in my art: that is what I needed to see this week.
I replied to my friend, “Now I know what I will sing for my Cantorial Boards this Spring, thank you!”
What are Cantorial Boards? at the end of the academic year the Cantorial students at JTS present our vocal, and in my case instrumental and vocal, accomplishments to our faculty. The wonderful part is being able to choose something dear to the heart, and I have already chosen my oboe piece, a beautiful rendition of Psalm 23 by Gerald Cohen. I also know I will be presenting as a liturgical piece, a selected prayer moment from the Weekday Nusah.
We also present a secular song. My first thought was something from West Side Story, I always loved performing the score on oboe in ensembles, grabbing onto the sexy driven pace so characteristic of Leonard Bernstein. I gave myself the challenge to vocally step outside myself, and in fantasy, don a bouncy ponytail and swirl skirt and sing, ‘I’m So Pretty’. If I could pull this off, be someone I have never been, indeed, I could transform myself into any role, with practice.
As another, more academic part of developing my identity as a Cantor, I attended the Mini Semester at the Seminary this past week. I was the only student from the Cantorial School among the many Rabbinical students. The Interfaith theme for the week took us to the nearby Catholic Church, where I learned that Catholic Churches also have Cantors, and the Cantor at this Church was a woman. She shared with me that the Catholic prayers can be sung to musical modes particular to each prayer, something that I had thought was unique to Jewish prayers. This Cantor’s training came from memory, listening to recordings, and composing in those modes. I also noticed that she had a natural way of moving herself, sweeping us up with her as she swept up her arms, keeping the flow of prayer moving along by extending her presence into the sanctuary draw us in, and she avoided invasive singing ‘instructions’, those interruptions to explain how and when to join in, that can kill the kavana or prayer intent.
One of the four days of the mini Semester focused mostly on music and prayer. The first presentation was with Neshama Carlebach and members of the Green Pastures Baptist Choir. We heard the channeling of her father’s voice in the selections of his music, with the addition of the voices of her Inter-faith ensemble. The gospel spirituals styling and falsettos got us to our feet and I felt the flight of spirit as we left the structures we are so used to in our traditional Jewish prayers. The exposure to different prayer music continued after dinner, when we went to a Gospel Church in Harlem for the Wednesday night Manna Service. Here, the worship ran with escalating energy and reverb into and through the congregation. Again, many of us enthusiastically joined in, hands and body in the music, as well as voices.
And here is where I realized that I could dump the ponytail and swirl skirt, and pack my powerful body of spirit into prayer. This is where I understood how the rigorous seminary training as a Cantor would serve me. In the church, the spirit would fly from the soles of my feet and my bones, up the windpipes and out the lid: but sometimes, unlike the young polished Israeli singer, it would get away from me. I yearned to do whatever I needed to, to keep that tension of spirit and verve in check, from getting away, and to keep it suspended joyfully like a beautiful kite on the wind, not allowing it to be torn away and lost by a gale force.
At my next voice lesson, I allowed myself to open further, freer and let my teacher guide me when I got to the point where I would lose it, to keep the music in check, to tame it. The grunt work of ear training helped me stay on pitch, and now I could begin to trust my ability to feel the pleasure of the beauty of voice without the fear of losing it to the wind. The tension of holding pitch while releasing into the sounds I anticipated was a taste of liberation for me. Hallelujah!
Sometimes it is a good thing to venture past the familiar. Experiencing the joy and ecstasy in prayer with confidence came with accessing prayer differently with others. That is the value of Interfaith experienve.
In the past, singing Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ was frustrating, much like trying to catch a little fox and hold it by the tail, only to have it skitter away. The song itself is about relationship, bittersweet, somber, with moments of ecstasy and pathos ensconced in the musical moments, juxtaposition of pitches and modulations. How to, it is like the intonation of the oboe; piercing and beckoning and visceral all at the same time. How reminiscent of relationships we’ve all had. How much this music resonates with my life, and how at peace I am to know that I can learn to capture this yearning, at least for an afternoon of graduation.