Here Goes Everything

As Shabbat ended on Saturday night, I went outside to check for three stars. For a few minutes, I was able to appreciate the bright slender moon, the lovely and clear cobalt-blue darkening sky, and I was able to watch as the stars appeared on the expanse one at a time. In this world of electronics and eternal hurry, we still rely on natural signals to know what time Shabbat ends.

Here is my attempt at “crunchy granola”. I’m as yekkish as they come most of the time…

Which is not to say that I don’t love nature, and is not to say that I don’t appreciate a spiritual moment. It is to say that I prefer the structures provided for me by traditional liturgy and traditional praxis.

So… A journey. This summer will be a journey. Maybe I should say tefillat haderekh before I go. Am I really worried about scary things interfering with my journey? Well, no. Although I do pray that God will keep the ticks, scary animals, and biting bugs as far away from me as possible.

Instead of the traditional tefillat haderekh, I pray for open-mindedness. I pray for guidance to allow my teaching to actualize the potential in my students. I pray for success of my own and my fellows’ endeavors.


Second Verse

I recently obtained a copy of A.W. Binder’s “New Palestinian Folk Songs: Book II,” published in 1933 by Bloch Publishing. It contains twenty songs arranged for piano and voice, some of which have stood the test of time, but many of which are all but lost to collective memory.

What struck me here was a song I know and have loved for a long time, “Yerushalayim,” also known as “Mé’al Pisgat Har Ha-Tsofim,” since I heard the recording of Yehoram Gaon singing it so many years ago. 

The lyrics I have known appear in the first verse:

2013-05-30 15.50.22

From atop Mount Scopus,
I bow to you twice.
From atop Mount Scopus,
Peace unto you, Jerusalem.
A hundred generations have I dreamt of you,
To be privileged to see the light of your face.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Lift up your face to your child.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
From your destruction shall I rebuild you.

This is the verse I fell in love with when I first heard the song.

However, the lyrics to the second verse seems to be highly debatable. Yehoram Gaon’s version, which claims to have lyrics from poet Avigdor Me’iri, as Binder’s version does, has this second verse:

meal pisgat

From atop Mount Scopus,
I bow to you twice.
From atop Mount Scopus,
Peace unto you, Jerusalem.
May you be blessed with a thousand blessings,
Sanctuary, King, Royal City!

Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
I will not move from here!
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
The Messiah will come. He will come.

Another popular version, sung by Ofra Chaza, contains the following second verse:

me'al pisgat

From atop Mount Scopus,
Peace unto you, Jerusalem.
A thousand exiles from all over the world
Lift their eyes to you.
May you be blessed with a thousand blessings,
Sanctuary, King, Royal City!

Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
I will not move from here!
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
The Messiah will come. He will come.

I’ve sung both versions listed above at various occasions in various arrangements. When looking at Binder’s version, what I was not at all expecting to see was these lyrics:

2013-05-30 15.50.30With a secure heart I came here,
Raised up your ruins.
But how could I build your Temple
If there is not peace among your children?
Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Yemenites,
[several other groups which I do not know how to translate].

Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
This is not what I saw in my dream!
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Please facilitate peace between your children!

So which version is most accurate?

It is worth noting that all editions I have seen of this song have noted that the poetry is by Avigdor Ha-Me’iri, but that the melody is a folk tune. Zemereshet, however, asserts that the composer of this tune is the Polish composer and conductor Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819-1872), though I  have to assume the assertion implies contrafaction; not that Moniuszko had any knowledge of Ha-Me’iri’s poem. The melody is featured in Act IV of Moniuszko’s “Halka.” Another source asserts that Moniuszko’s piece and Ha-Me’iri’s share an ur-tune – that Moniuszko, as was popular at the time, borrowed from a folk-tune in his piece, which happens to be the same folk tune as Ha-Me’iri borrowed to set his poem.

A brief search of the inter-webs and the assistance of Google Translate to interpret a page on about the origin of the piece (an essay entirely in Polish) gives me the following information:

In 1927, just three years after the founding of the Tel Aviv Theatre, Avigdor Ha-Me’iri and his friend Arther Koestler, both Hungarian immigrants, founded Ha-Kumkum, the first satirical cabaret in Tel Aviv. Ha-Me’iri is remembered as an important poet in Israel, and also one of its first and finest satirists. In 1929, the piece was performed by the first time at Ha-Kumkum. In 1930, the song was used in a social campaign to promote the Jewish National Fund (JNF) / Keren Kayemet L’Yisraél. My assumption (without much proof) is that the lyrics printed in Binder’s copy – only four years after its debut – are the most original, probably the ones that were premiered in Ha-Kumkum at that first performance. The version of the song that was used to promote the JNF was already Yehoram Gaon’s version. Is it possible that Ha-Me’iri, having been commissioned by the JNF, wrote the other lyrics? I assume so. The latter lyrics are certainly more suited for Zionist public relations, and would be most likely to stand the test of time.

The world may never know.

Still Praying for Safety in Boston

At 6:00 this morning, I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. I let it go to voicemail.

“The following is an emergency message from Alert Boston, the City of Boston’s Community notification system: T service is suspended until further notice. Watertown and surrounding communities, including Allston and Brighton should stay home shelter in place and understand we have an armed and dangerous person still at large and police actively pursuing him. Please be patient in use common sense about congregating in large crowds until the suspect is apprehended. We will continue to update the public with more information as it becomes available.”

A few thoughts went through my head this morning when I listened to this message:
1) Who is calling and why are they calling at 6:00 in the morning?
2) I’m never leaving the house again.
3) I’m really glad I live in a city that has such an advanced notification system that they can tell me and everyone around me so efficiently when it is not safe to leave the house.

For the last week or so, William Billings’s poem “Lamentation Over Boston,” which the Zamir Chorale of Boston recorded in 2006, has been playing on loop through my head. (The recording is here if you want to listen.) His prayer, today, is also mine.

His poem:

By the Rivers of Watertown we sat down and wept,
we wept when we remember’d thee, O Boston.
Lord God of Heaven, preserve them, defend them,
deliver and restore them unto us again.
Forbid it, Lord God,
forbid that those who have sucked Bostonian Breasts
should thirst for American Blood.
A voice was heard in Roxbury which eccho’d thro’ the Continent,
weeping for Boston because of their Danger.
Is Boston my dear Town, is it my native Place?
for since their Calamity I do earnestly remember it still!
If I forget thee, yea, if I do not remember thee,
Then let my numbers cease to flow, Then be my Muse unkind,
Then let my Tongue forget to move and ever be confin’d;
Let horrid Jargon split the Air and rive my nerves asunder.
Let hateful discord greet my ear as terrible as Thunder.
Let harmony be banish’d hence and Consonance depart;
Let dissonance erect her throne and reign within my Heart.

When Zamir sang this piece in 2006, I had been in Boston just a year. Now, having made this area my home for almost eight years, I really feel what Billings must have been feeling as he sat (I imagine) looking at the Charles River and composing this piece during the American Revolution. I love this city. I want it to be safe.

Another lesson I’m remembering, and trying to keep on my heart:

A mentor at Hebrew College once told me that when having issues with someone, you can pray for their healing. Even though they do not need physical healing, this acknowledges that what’s going on with them, even if they are directing their anger or hatred toward you, is their own. It allows us to remain in a place of knowing that the anger is not directed toward us explicitly, but rather we are a vessel for their frustration.

Even in a place of anger, anxiety, and fear, we must remember that these perpetrators are human. We must acknowledge that they weren’t born this way. Perhaps the message is naïve, but it’s the only way I know how to keep from dropping into a spiral of pessimism and despair.

As I sit in my apartment, missing the noise of regular vehicle traffic and the streetcar, I hear more-than-periodic sounds of police sirens. I pray today for the safety of the people of Boston. I pray for the men and women of the police departments and other emergency, intelligence, and rescue departments who are actively on the job today during this incredibly unsafe time. I pray for the families of these officers, that they should themselves feel safe and that they should see their heroes when the worst of this is over. I pray for anyone who has been injured in any part of this conflict. I pray for the comfort of anyone who has lost a family member or a friend. I pray for the hospital workers and the doctors, the government officials, and everyone who is working for the security of this city. And, despite their unspeakable crimes against this city, I pray for the perpetrators of the crimes that have turned Boston upside down this week. I pray that their souls find equilibrium and rest, so that they — and we — can be free again.

A Prayer for Recovery in Boston

מִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב, שָׂרָה רִבְקָה רָחֵל וְלֵאָה, הוּא יְבָרֵךְ וִירַפֵא אֶת כׇּל שֶׁנִּפְצְעוּ אֶתְמוֹל בְּבּוֹסְטוֹן עִרֵֽינוּ.
הַקָדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יִמָלֵא רַחֲמִים עָלֶיהֶם, לְהַחֲלִימָם וּלְרַפְּאוֹתָם וּלְהַחֲזִיקָם וּלְהַחֲיוֹתָם, וְיִשְלַח לָהֶם מְהֵרָה רְפוּאָה שְלֵמָה מִן הַשָמַיִם רְפוּאַת הַנֶפֶשׁ וּרְפוּאַת הַגּוּף, וִיחַזֵק אֶת יְדֵי הָעוֹסְקִים בְּצׇרְכֵיהֶם, הַשְתָא בָּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב. וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן.

May God who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bless and heal all those who were attacked yesterday in Boston, our city. May the Holy One, blessed is He, have mercy upon them, that they should recuperate, and be healed, strengthened, and enlivened. May He send them, quickly, a full recovery from Heaven; a recovery of soul and of body. May He strengthen the hands of those who assist the wounded. Now, immediately, in due time. And let us say: Amen.

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.

Question for the Day

Sat through a really interesting presentation about bringing drums into davening during Community Time today at Hebrew College. Of course, the synagogues I tend to frequent do not permit drums during Shabbat or holiday services. However, every time this issue comes up, the clergy are required to explain their choices.

So, question for pondering today: 

Not so long ago, we were a Judaism of “Because I said so.” Some communities still are — and this is not denominationally driven. Reform Judaism makes choices that they justify with “Because we said so.” Orthodox Judaism of every ilk makes choices based on its understanding of the Torah, “Because we said so.” “Because I said so” was a good enough reason for me to listen to my parents when I was a kid. When did that answer stop being good enough to mean anything at all? Is it always good to have to justify every choice, every decision? Is it okay to just have “blind faith,” not in our God, but in our choices?

Yishar Koach to Ruth Horowitz on a really wonderful reflection, getting us into the mindset of Nisan. (Chodesh Tov!)

Giving Up The Ghost


I cleaned my kitchen floor the other day. This may not seem noteworthy to you. But to me, sad to say, it is.

It’s not like we’ve been wallowing in filth. We don’t have kids or pets, and we take shoes off at the door, so we don’t track in a lot of dirt from outside. When we notice a major spill, we’re pretty quick to sweep it up. Sometimes I even take out the broom just for good measure, in case there’s something I’m not seeing.

Even so, the floor was starting to bother even me. But even if it hadn’t, I could tell by looking at the calendar that a cleaning was in the cards. Just not quite yet.

Passover is a little over two weeks away. I don’t prepare for the holiday by scouring my oven or covering my counters with foil, and we don’t have a…

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A Look Back to Poetic Times

Sometime in my past, I was in the desert, in Israel. Whether I was traveling with Ramah Seminar or Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim I don’t remember; but here in a box of old materials I’ve discovered two pages I wrote that night. No date, but some nice thoughts. I know they were written sometime between 2003 and 2004. Here there are:

The Desert. The Negev Desert. Like something out of a dream. In depictions of places like this, only dreary colors are portrayed. I’ve never really been in a desert before, but wow. I’m sitting on the side of a mountain, a light tan in the sunlight and a grey brown in the shade. I only use images of these colors as such because there is no other word to describe them. The mountain on which I’m sitting slopes downwards, in a slow downcline of shelves of rocks. At the top they are more flat, more sturdy. Towards the bottom they are more ground, fine. More pebbles. Directly across from me, in a quick but drastic transition is a stand dune. The sand here has the fineness of powder, the consistency of water. There must be a mountain under all that sand, because I can see rocks underneath. At the top and bottom, there are plants growing. Yeah, plants, who would have thought? Depictions – pictures, paintings, photos – they all show the desert with nothing but cactus. None here.

I pick up rocks to see see what’s underneath – the minute I touch it, the rock crumbles to sand underneath my fingers. That rock may have been sitting there for thousands of years, and I crumbled the sand beneath it. Looking out as far as I can see, al I can see is mountains and sand and rocks and plants. The sky is so clear. There are a few clouds on the horizon to my sides, but none in the overhead. No two things are the same hue. There is not a grain of sand identical to another. The wind constantly blowing. I can hear it in my ears the whole time. It sounds like thunder, and is hard enough even to shake me, but at the same time it’s soothing. No wonder people live here. Now I can think only of one thing, one quote:

I lift my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help? My help is from the Lord, maker of Heaven and Earth.

However, as much as the desert is a remarkable place, I have to admit that it would be hard for me to stay here. As the sun goes down, it ets colder and colder, not only physically but emotionally. This place may be scary in a little while, with animals and coldness and lack of water and food. The sun is completely behind the mountain now, with only the lightest trail of yellow left behind. It’s beautiful.

Feeling Exposed

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that on the eve of Yom Kippur I’m thinking about forgiveness. Just as the Rabbi spoke on Rosh Hashanah about the arbitrariness of New Year’s resolutions on a random day on the calendar, it seems to me just as arbitrary to pick a random day to ask for forgiveness from the people around us.

We have Ten days of Atonement each year. This year, these ten for me have kind of felt like a religiously prescribed timeout in the corner to think about what I’ve done. Productive, though? Yes.

But there is also something to be said about how to exposed I feel today. In preparation for my leading services on any other day, I dress up, I apply makeup, I give myself a manicure, and I put on my favorite earrings to match my outfit. I imbue myself with the confidence I require to do an excellent job. In preparation for Yom Kippur, just the opposite.

Today, in preparation, I took my makeup off. I took off all of my jewelry. I removed the nail polish from my fingers. I brushed my teeth. I showered. I took one last look at the text of a service which calls me unworthy and unfit for the task for which I am readying myself. Today, I tried to give myself confidence, but the text, which I have coddled the last few weeks and months, tries to bring me down.

I have nothing to hide behind. Not even the clothes I wear will show through the robe I’m wearing on the bimah tonight. And yet, Hineni. here I am.

It is with this humility that I apologize for everything I have done this year. With nothing else to think about, nowhere else to run, I am faced with my flaws today. I am faced with how my flaws affect those around me. for the first time in a very long time, I can only think about the way I have affected others this year.

In some cases, I have done good. I have positively influence the people who trust me most. I have had some good ideas, I have loved. I have learned. I have lived.

I have also gotten in my own way. I have prevented myself from actualizing my own potential. I have perhaps transferred this weakness onto a community. I have not created risk free environment where others can actualize. I have prevented my own growth, and I have stunted the growth of others. I have not taken advantage of teachable moments.

And yet, and yet. Hineini, here I am. Poor in deeds, unfit, unworthy for the task at hand, quaking in my boots with anticipation and fear.

Despite this, and perhaps, because of this, may we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life.