Quiet Moment

Yesterday I gave the first of three performances of my Senior Recital, a requirement for graduation from Hebrew College, at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey where I was born and raised. What a whirlwind day! Several hours of anxiousness later, seventy minutes of performance went by so quickly I barely remember it all…

But the most moving moment I had yesterday? The quiet before the storm.

As the audience of over 100 (some report close to 150) filed into the sanctuary where I was going to perform, I took a few moments for myself in the chapel – to collect myself, to breathe, to think, to meditate. Really, I’m not a big meditator. As I sat in the dark, I found myself staring at the chapel’s beautifully carved wooden ark.

“I remember staring at that ark when my dad would lead services and I could barely see over the shulchan (reader’s table),” I said to myself. Suddenly, I felt tears welling up. “It hasn’t changed in twenty years.” The ark hasn’t, even through two renovations. I have.

Idiomatically the classical Jewish sources, leading services is called “Descending before the Ark.” I remember leading services before that ark. I remember before I could lead a whole service, just leading Alénu and Yigdal at the end of services in front of it. I remember trying to figure out which holiday each of the symbols represented, and tracing the windy carving all the way around.

“Who would have thought then that I’d be doing this?” I said aloud to the dark room. Suddenly I knew how far I’d come.

In the moments before I stepped out in front of the audience, I wasn’t feeling as anxious. I wasn’t stressed. Sure, my heart was beating out of my chest – but not because I had any doubt in myself. As I looked around the room for the first time, I saw friendly faces. I saw the way they looked at me – expecting, kvelling, seeing me for  differently than they saw me in whatever part of my life in which they met me for the first time. Welcoming me to the mouth of the long tunnel that has been this journey.

I am a work in progress. I am found.


Music: Melting-Pot or Fruit Salad?

So far, so good. Camp is going well, I’m enjoying myself and trying many new things – today was yoga. I’m no butterfly, but I’m learning. Pluralism is touchy. Didn’t have the greatest Shabbat this week, but maybe I’m just homesick or feeling out of place. Perhaps I’ll write about it after I have another Shabbat under my belt.

My observation and what’s been on my heart this Shabbat, actually, is musical.

The camp where I’m working has a really interesting musical repertoire. The songs sung here are largely not the “typical” Jewish summer camp songs (at least, based on the camps in which I’ve been a camper and staff, which are all Ramah camps). Sure, every now and then we are graced with a niggun (mostly by Carlebach), but more often than not the songs being sung are Negro spirituals, or borrowed from church groups. They are American folk songs. Every now and then we hear a melody that rings South African or African tribal. Often we chant mantras, a concept that is borrowed from the Buddhist tradition – even if they are chanted using Hebrew text, they don’t ring “Jewish”.

Though it’s a Jewish camp experience, I’m really missing Jewish music. Where have all the augmented-seconds gone?? (For the record, someday I will teach the whole world that Carlebach’s Psalm 29 is not in major.)

Beyond my own yearning, though, came a different sadness. While I acknowledge that we benefit greatly from knowing others’ musical traditions, it’s still a little sad to think that faith groups, cultural groups, and national groups no longer own their own music. We fell that we can sing mantras that ring Buddhist, spirituals that ring African American, chants that ring African, gospel music that rings Baptist. We no longer have to intercourse with these groups in order to share music — we feel entitled and able to sing it for ourselves. But to what end? Because it is meaningful? Why can’t we find meaning in our own music? Why can’t we reinvigorate and compose within our own faith tradition? Why did we abandon our own song?

The poet asks in Psalm 133, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Is this the Lord’s song? Scratch that. Is this our Lord’s song?

Perhaps blurring the lines is a benefit. Perhaps it creates a Unity of Humankind. There are those who would tell you that a Unity of Humankind is exactly what we’ve always been hoping for. After all, the second paragraph of Alénu does tell us that “all flesh and blood will call in [God’s] name.” Well, it’s a nice story, but it doesn’t account for our differences — our beautiful differences. The world is a wonderful place because each person has his/her own voice. Does that principle not extend to cultural groups? Frankly, other faith groups don’t go around singing Jewish music. Maybe they sing a piece or two in choral settings; but not often in worship. And how would we feel if they did?

Yes, we know historically there was cross-sharing when it came to musical traditions. Melodies from the synagogue made their way into the church service, while secular and some church melodies made their way into the synagogue. (For more on this, see Eric Werner’s The Sacred Bridge.) I don’t know — this feels different. William Sharlin talks about active assimilation versus passive assimilation of music: in “active assimilation” (which he discourages), outside music traditions are forced into Jewish worship, while “passive assimilation” allows them to permeate the borders of the music tradition with out being obtrusive. This doesn’t feel like borrowing and repurposing; it feels like stealing.

Then again, as one of my mentors once said, “Who am I to prevent anyone from being exposed to this music?”

So we hang in the balance. In a place that doesn’t insist on a prerequisite knowledge of Hebrew, how do I introduce more Jewish songs into the ethos? Can I leave a uniquely Jewish thumbprint? Can I insist on musical seclusion? Well, probably not. Definitely what to think about as we near the start of the camping season.


The Poet’s Handwriting

This morning I received a compliment: “Your voice is beautiful.” Generally, I welcome these kinds of compliments (who wouldn’t?). Today, however, I’m frustrated.

The comment was in response to my chanting of an El Malei, a memorial prayer, in remembrance of those brave soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces who have died in combat – today is Yom HaZikkaronIt felt, to me, like a prayer that came directly from the bottom of my heart. I poured all of myself into the text, and tried to communicate its meaning to those with whom I was davening.

“Your voice is beautiful.” The compliment, while well-intentioned, frustrated me. It’s like having read a poem and then having complimented the poet on his handwriting.

Perhaps I should be grateful that the t’filah connected with this person on any level. Perhaps this morning, this person was not mentally or spiritually ready to accept the t’filah for its words or its true sentiment. Perhaps this person simply didn’t have the vocabulary or wherewithal to express deeper connection with this prayer. Perhaps what this person doesn’t generally appreciate cantorial music, or that the cantors this person had heard had left a negative impression, so this was high praise. Perhaps there was no baggage, and the compliment was meant simply for the words it contained. Perhaps I should not judge.

I won’t speak for all who endeavor to lead prayer. However, speaking just for myself, leading prayer is not about the music; it is about using the music as a vehicle for spiritual connection and awareness. I never thought in preparation for this morning’s El Malei, “How can I make this sound beautiful?” I asked myself, “How do I communicate these words so my entire being will understand them? How do I, in the framework I’ve internalized, send these words from the page, through the hearts of my community, straight to the Kisei HaKavod (God’s throne in Heaven)?”

The voice of the cantor is oft-disparaged in our modern Judaism. Cantors are accused of “performing,” of extending services too long, of not engaging the congregation appropriately, of “liking the sound of his/her own voice.” Yes, there are those. After all, there was a period not long ago when cantorial music was almost exclusively a high performance art. When it comes to the most meaningful of t’fillot, the deepest in the heart, though, I have never met a cantor who wasn’t filling the words with every fiber of his or her being and trying his or her best to take a prayer and send it as directly to the Heavenly Throne as possible.

The lesson, then, to any congregant listening to any prayer leader: please do not compliment our voices after a worship experience. Tell us you find meaning in what we do. Express the deeper implications of what you say. Engage us in conversation. Tell us why you found something spiritual, and tell us also why you didn’t. We, in turn, will talk about our preparation, our intentionality, and our experiences, and we will not judge.

In the Wake of Tragedy: Who is to Blame?

This past week, the world saw a terrible tragedy. Twenty children under age seven and seven adults, including the gunman’s own mother, dead at the hands of Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I don’t need to sum up the story more than this for you — enough is available on the news channels (but click here for more information from ABC News if you need it).

What is clear to me, however, is that no one knows who to blame for this massacre — and it is amazing to me just how many people don’t blame the shooter. A twenty-year-old boy (no, I would not call him a “man”) picked up a semi-automatic weapon and opened fire on school children. I am angry. I am angry at him, and I am angry about the fact that the media seems to feel that the most effective places to place their blame for the massacre are anywhere but on Adam Lanza. I’m sorry, Adam Lanza is at fault here. This event was cold and calculated, no more obvious than when you hear that he went into the school with two semi-automatic weapons and wearing a bullet-proof vest. Yes, there are contributing factors; but in modern society too often do we refocus our lenses on “contributing factors” rather than hold people accountable.

We talk about Nature vs. Nurture. We talk about environmental factors. Are we really so naïve that we can’t see that the boy might be at fault for his own actions? Just a simple scroll down my Facebook Newsfeed shows me how many directions this story is taking.

What we’ve heard:

Adam Lanza’s mother was a gun enthusiast who took him to the shooting range, and so it’s her fault that this tragedy occurred. By the way, she is dead. Her son killed her.
Society doesn’t talk enough about mental health, and so it’s our fault that this tragedy occurred.
Society doesn’t talk enough about gun control, and so it’s our fault that this tragedy occurred.
It’s too easy to get a gun, and not easy enough to reach a mental health professional, and so it’s our legislators’ fault that this tragedy occurred.
The media glorifies school shootings by the way they report on them, and it’s the mass media’s fault that this tragedy occurred.
– Adam Lanza may or may not have had Aspergers, and it’s the Autism’s fault.

Believe me, I understand the need to resume power in a situation that leaves us powerless. We need explanations, we need words, and so we find causes that are dear to us by which we can prevent this situation happening. I don’t discount these — in fact, I encourage them. Friends, lack of access to guns is not the answer — there is simply no way for us to prevent effectively from people getting guns if they really want them, and our money and time is better spent in other endeavors. Let us focus on education. Let us focus on emergency drills that equip us to respond to this kind of situation. Let us be angry. Let us learn from our fears. Let us focus on healing from pain and suffering. Let us support these families and friends who are trying to cope with inconceivable loss — loss of life, loss of potential life. Let us count our blessings. If there is anything we could do to prevent this from ever happening again, let’s do it. But it is not healthy to redirect the blame for the massacre in Newtown off of the one who planned and executed it. Nor is it healthy to blame ourselves.

Sacred Trash

Handwritten inscription to an English copy of the Holy Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1939, given as a gift to the author of this poem by his friend in 1944:

The Old Prayer Book by Jacob Cahan

This book of prayers, old and
stained with tears,
I take into my hand
And to the God of my fathers,
Who from ages past has been
their Rock and Refuge,
I call in my distress
In ancient words, peace,
With the pain of generations,
I pour out my woe
May these words that know
the heavenly path,
ascend aloft unto God on
To covey to Him that
which my tongue cannot
express. All that lies
deep hidden
within my heart,
may these words,
simple and true,
speak for me before God
Entreating His mercy
Perchance the Heavenly
God who hearkened to my
fathers prayers,
Who gave them courage
and strength
To bear all of their sorrow
and degradation
Yet ever to hope for
redemption —
Perchance He will also
hear my prayer and
hearken to my cry,
and be to me a protecting
For there is none to
help or sustain me,
But God in Heaven.

I have no words to supplement Cahan’s beautiful, heartfelt, incredibly personal prayer. This text, in the author’s own handwriting, was found inscribed in the front pages of a copy of an English Bible just saved from the geniza. I wonder – what other prayers, written and dreamed, have been buried among our sacred trash?

Blindness and Darkness

“Dottor Marcuccio, who was also blind as a result of an accident, […] had explained to her that darkness was a visual sensation and therefore a prerogative of those who have the gift of sight. ‘The blind […] cannot see the darkness, just as the deaf cannot hear silence, which is an auditory sensation, the antithesis of sound; that’s all there is to it.’”

Andrea Bocelli, The Music of Silence, trans. Consuelo Bixio Hackney (Milwaukee, WI: Amadeus Press, 2011), p.61.