Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cantors, Cooking, Cups, Concert, Camelot

About Rosh Hashana Services: It is in writing about moments such as these that I realize that language is inadequate - or that I don't have the skill to shape my words in such a way that you can understand the full majesty of what we experienced. Seated in a high-ceilinged room at HUC, from whose Eastern wall, made entirely of class, we watched the sun as it set (last night) and ascended (this morning) over the Old City, we listened to and joined in services of such magnificent music that it quite literally brought tears to my eyes. These cantorial students, these people with talent so great, their voices rang out so purely and fully together that they seemed like the heavenly host of angels praising G-d that we read about in the high holiday liturgy. It was especially moving to hear some of our friends, cantorial students, whom I'd never really heard sing, sharing and bearing themselves in front of the congregation and really sanctifying the day with their gifts and their passions. I felt like a guitar that had been strummed and I'm still resonating, within me I'm filling up with music and sound, waves that flow upwards and outwards and fill the whole of me.

In addition to the pheonminal choir of cantorial students, we also had the honor to hear Cantor Eli Schleifer, the director of the cantorial program in Jerusalem. His passion was matched by his control of the music, and his ability to connect the music to the words of the prayers to enhance and elevate the entire experience. He read the Akeidah, speaking the words of G-d and of Abraham with a bold, deep commanding voice, and the words of Isaac with a voice so tentative, so unsure, that he was transformed himself into a timid son following a half-crazed father in search of his G-d at the expense of his own lifeblood. There were so many powerful moments in his prayers, that I simply cannot recount them all. When he sang of mortality his voice began strong and softened until it was a tiny star in the vast, dark, heavens. All of his words, all of his prayers, were so deliberate, so artful. There wasn't a single misplaced note or syllable, not a single word that seemed to be sung by rote or out of obligation to the tradition - all was sincere, all was in a spirit of atonement and celebration, of truly marking life by the seasons in which we live it, by the emotions we experience, and by the limits of our physical bodies and the limitlessness of our souls.

I wish all of you could have been there. It was grand but also participatory, it was awesome, but also down-to-earth, it made me feel as though praying was a holy endeavor, while reminding me that prayer is also a vehicle and a vessel that needs to be brought out of the synagogue and carried around as part of every day life. If I can bring the service with me as I embark on the ten days of tshuva, I will have accomplished much.

Daniel and I were just discussing how difficult we find the ten days of tshuva, because we aren't sure what they mean and how we should act during those days. For instance, is it enough to say to everyone "If I have done you any wrong this year, I am sorry"? Or is that sort of a cop-out as you aren't personally probing to try to remember the wrongs you have committed and you aren't making yourself vulnerable to others by admitting your imperfections? And what if you honestly can't remember something that you did wrong? Or what if you can remember it but it really was just a small thing, and you think it would do more harm than good to bring it up again? Exactly what are we to do during these ten days? Another question is to what extent should we force ourselves to be better people for just these ten days? If I want G-d to judge me for who I am, perhaps I shouldn't change my behavior for ten days, perhaps it is dishonest. Or, perhaps I can take these ten days and try to change and improve myself, nad maybe some of it will stick into the next year. It's like a trial period for New Year's Resolutions - and surely if you do something every day for ten days, it is likely to make an impression on you, and affect your behavior at least in some small way for the rest of the year. I don't know, but I do know that it is important to try to be the best version of yourself at all times, and perhaps focusing on that for ten days will help with focusing on it throughout the year.

As the New Year is beginning, the weather is changing and we're beginning to feel a cold breeze settling on the city of Jerusalem. It will stay, and the sun will seem rarer, and it will be harder and harder to find warmth in the city. It seems like a hard time to begin a New Year - not in the spring when we can rejoice in the warmth of the sun and in the personal freedom that summer offers, but at the cusp of the rainy season, when we are chained to our umbrellas, slaves of our galoshes. But, perhaps too the rainy season is an appropriate way to begin the year, as it is the start of the agricultural cycle, and I am praying for a year that bears plentiful fruit, a year that grows toward the sun, a year that blossoms in vivid colors.


We began our preparations for Rosh Hashanah with cooking, which is itself a deeply spiritual activity. A very wise person once told me that the action of knitting, a practical, creative endeavor of craftingthe long and narrow into the full, soft, and warm, was one of the most spiritual activities that life offers. I'm not sure if that holds true for me, but I would say that I can apply the same to cooking. I love the mysterious way that artcan be created out of the very stuff of the earth - the grain and the leaf, the fruit and the nut. We baked a splendid honeycake in preparation for the holiday. It is rich, dense, and fragrant, with candied ginger, cloves, and nutmeg. We're hoping to have some friends over tomorrow after services to share it with us. For today's potluck lunch, we made a simple yet elegant dish of mushrooms in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and white wine, and for the potluck dinner we are attending tonight, I tried to replicate the lasagne recipe that Paola taught me a few weeks ago. We spent most of the day yesterday cooking and shopping for food. In addition, we decided to splurge on some items we've been sorely missing: a challah cover, candle sticks, a vessel for ritual hand washing, a set of cups, a set of serving bowls, a steamer, and four mugs. Everything was on sale because of the holiday season and was quite reasonable, and we are pleased at the idea of leaving the apartment well stocked at the end of the year, as we've been so happy with all of the supplies left to us by the previous tenants.


On Thursday, I took my final exam for my ulpan, and I am now enjoying a month's break. For my first day of break (Sunday), I went to the Ministry of the Interior and finally was able to procure a student visa, thus ending the painful work of half a year. I've begun studying for the GRE Subject Test in Literature in English, though my testing date has been pushed back until November. I have a lot of studying to do for the test, so while I am disappointed at the date change, especially as I am a little antsy that not everything will arrive to the schools I'm applying to on time if it is sent so late, I am pleased to have the extra time to reread Canterbury tales and quiz myself on the names of all of the characters that ever appeared in a work by Shakespeare or Dickens. I've begun reading in English again, I couldn't help myself, and even Hemmingway (who I'm reading now but have never read before) feels like a dear old friend. The lack of a novel these past months has felt deeply physical and personal, like a whole part of my life and my identity had been left stranded at the airport in Toronto. Being able to read in Hebrew helped a little, but I am so glad to be reunited with the English language. I am a bit nervous, however, that this long break will allow too many opportunities to forget to be diligent about language study, and I hope to continue to read in Hebrew and in Yiddish throughout the break. In addition to all this reading, I of course will be applying to graduate school, and am currently working hard at discovering my sense of purpose, so that I can write a statement of purpose to each of these universities. Wish me luck.


On Thursday night, Daniel and I strolled to Yung Yiddish. We are rarely out so late at night, and there was an excitement to the bright lights of stores against the stillness of the evening. On the way, we passed through the shuk and I bought Daniel a molten chocolate cake. We passed through bustling Jaffa street and through an empty Rehov Yerimiyhu where we walked past a store displaying fancy, beautiful sukkot.

The crowd at Yung Yiddish was mostly secular this time, and the place was pretty full (maybe 45 people in the audience?). The performer, Theresa Tova, had a deep, pointed, strong, alto voice, and she sang Cabaret/Jazz style Yiddish pieces, many of them also translated into English (She's not a Hebrew speaker), with poise, and a smooth, easy sort of confidence. She was accompanied by a pianest and cellist that she had just met that day, yet the performance was not anxious, and where there were mistakes, they were corrected cooly. Theresa Tova exuded a love for the music that she was singing - an enjoyment of it, and also a belief in it. She had a jazzy, sassy, easy, sultry sort of stage presence. She explained each piece before she sang it, often with jokes and always with smiles. We loved her music, and we found ourselves clapping and singing along to Belz, Sheyn Vi Di Levoyne, Papirosn, and many others. We enjoyed it so much that we bought a CD and when we are back in the States we'll be glad to lend it to you. Theresa Tova is an actor. singer, and writer, based in Toronto (woohoo!) who performes in New York, Poland, Germany, Toronto, and elsewhere. Her mother was a Partisan during the Holocaust, and Tova learned Polish Yiddish in her home.

After Tova finished singing, Mendy Cahan, the head of Yung Yiddish, passed out cups for wine and vodka and made a warm toast to the New Year. Armed with our CD and these warm wishes, we set out into the evening to walk back to our apartment.


It's been so long since I've written that I keep thinking of more that I want to say. Should I tell you about teaching a friend to bake challah and the two huge honey-glazed round challahs we produced? Should I tell you about the Shabbat meal we shared with two friends, or the Shabbat lunch we served to other guests the following day? Should I tell you about the new friend we made at shul on Saturday that we welcomed into our home for lunch the very day we met him? Or about my being called to the Torah for an aliyah at the Conservative shul we enjoy attending on Saturday mornings? I think it would be too much, and take too much of your time. Suffice it to say that it has been a full, full, few days (both in terms of being busy and in terms of consuming a lot of delicious food!)


So instead of ending by telling you more about our week and our life here, I want to end with a thought for the new year. The following quote, which I read on the blog of the Velveteen Rabbi (see the links side of our blog page) struck me as particularly useful in conceptualizing Rosh Hashana:

She Writes: "Today is the birthday of the world." We say it every year; we'll say it on Tuesday and Wednesday, that 48-hour span of time which Jewish tradition mystically considers a single extended day of Rosh Hashanah. But the liturgy says something slightly different than what the simple English rendition would suggest. As Reb Duvid notes, harah means "pregnancy," conception or gestation: not labor, not birth. I've never carried nor borne a child, but I can see from here that they're very different things. Rosh Hashanah isn't the world's "birthday," exactly; it's the day when we celebrate creation's pregnant possibilities.

In studying for this English exam, I found myslelf rereading Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," which is about a magical woman who lives in a tower upstream from Camelot. She sits near a window and looks at the world through a mirror, weaving a tapestry that depicts the world that she sees outside. She is forbidden to look out of the mirror itself and to see real life. Ultimately, she sees Lancelot out her window and falls so in love with him that she cannot resist, looks out her window, and as her mirror cracks, she realizes the desolateness of the cursed life she leads. She leaves her tower, carves her name into a boat, lays down upon the boat and floats to Camelot, dying of cold along the way. It is a deeply mournful poem, of the desperate longing to break free from a life cut off from the world and in an act of desparation and of headlong bravery, to experience real life, even just for a moment before the coldness of death.

If creation is pregnant with possibilities, I think "The Lady of Shalott" urges us to take them. To take risks. Not to weave "by night and day a tapestry of colors gay" about the lives of others and the world that lies outside our doors, but to actually go out and to see the world and to live life. It is not easy to do. It is not easy for me to do - my natural inclination is to stay home where I am safe and comfortable, and perhaps this is why it seemed so exciting and unusual to me and Daniel to be out on Thursday night, as we are in fact inside most evenings. But my wish, my hope, my dream for the new year, is that as we enter into a time of the birth of the world, we will not only recognize its potential, but experience and be a part of that potential. I wish you all a sweet and a meaningful new year, a new year of experiences, of action, of headlong fanciful bravery that lasts more than just a moment, but for the whole long and enchanted journey of your lives.

1 comment:

Elyse Crane said...

Thank you, Jessica, for allowing my spirit to float into the celestial sounds of your HUC services - and to hear, within my heart, the beautiful music that bathed you and Daniel in sublime song.

Your "feeling like a strummed guitar" allows me to feel that resonance, even from so far away. As a musician yourself, you are able to appreciate the complexities of the choir, and as a writer, you so brilliantly weave that enchantment into your words.

Cooking, entertaining, studying, praying....you bring great observation, centered-ness and delight into your life.