Elul, Elul Elul llano…. Yom haKippur a la mano!

Good sneakers: pink cloth Keds, which I wear only on Yom Kippur – when tradition asks us to give up leather shoes. I can’t help confessing here that I do put Dr. Scholl’s inserts inside, otherwise they become too torturous after awhile.

zgoodsneakers

So we’re in Tennessee for Yontiff. I’m co-leading Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services at an adorable little shul in Blountville, which is near Bristol/Kingsport/Johnson City.

zbs

I also get to stay with some friends in the bargain, and to see them and other people with whom I went to high school.

I’ve made a habit of writing down three blessings a night for the past month or two. No matter how the rest of my life is going at that point, it’s a better life for owning the daily three. I usually post these at night, but here is the early version:

*Waking up in my very own bed in a comfortable guest room in a lovely, sprawling log cabin in the woods
to the adoring gaze of a gracious gray gentleman in the easy chair. No worries; his name is Charley and he’s a cat.
* Lunch with my sister from another mister, Tracy Blevins

TracynMe092814

*Listening to the Tennessee mountain rain as I prepare for tonight. Is it proper to feel this good before Yom Kippur? This grateful, this blessed?

Tonight begins Yom Kippur. It’s been quite a year of learning and burning.
I ask forgiveness for anyone I have wronged, knowingly or not.
I am NOT “sorry you feel that way”; I’m sorry I did or said that which hurt you.
May no one be punished on my account
And may I not be punished on another’s.

Tzom kal – an easy fast to all who fast.
Gamar chatimah tovah – and may you be well-inscribed.

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Blog Elul: September 11, 2001

My colleague, Cantor Jodi Schechtman, watches with her family as the Twin Towers are built

My colleague, Cantor Jodi Schechtman, watches with her family as the Twin Towers are built

Before you read this, I want you to turn on your speakers, go to youtube.com and listen to “Autumn In New York” while you’re reading. You can choose from Ella or Frank or a myriad of artists; my choice for this particular occasion is Billie Holiday.

What a time it was. What a time it promised to be. I had completed mourning the year following the passing of my father. I’d just finished serving my first summer on faculty at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, where I had met Karen Susman, my star-crossed sister from another mister (now godmother to my daughter). My then-husband Mark and I had spent a glorious Labor Day weekend hiking the underground caverns in Carlsbad, New Mexico and watched the bats take off on their lyrical nightly sunset flight in search of fruit and mosquitoes and the joy of defying gravity. During that same weekend our son Harry was conceived halfway around the world in Seoul, South Korea. We did not, of course, know this yet, but we had made the initial, official application to become parents through adoption, and this buoyed us greatly.

Mark’s oldest friend David was about to be married in Massachusetts. With the High Holy Days nearly upon us and me in the middle of the preparations for our home and our temple, I could not attend the wedding but Mark would stand up as David’s best man as David had done for Mark at our wedding. We had met and loved Beverly, so again we were really happy for them both. Mark and David had been buddies since kindergarten and it was all good.

On a lovely pre-autumn morning in Albuquerque Mark was just closing his suitcase and watching the Today show in the bedroom. At sometime sevenish Mountain Time I was in the bathroom when I heard Mark say with uncanny calm, “Two airplanes have hit the World Trade Center.” My first thought was, “Two? This is no accident.” I joined him in front of the TV in disbelief as we watched the towers destruct. Could this be really happening? I remember when they built the towers….world’s tallest at the time after the Empire State Building….From our safe vantage point 1500 miles and a TV screen away, the mighty twin towers looked like toys as they smoked and crumbled to rubble.

Mark called the airport and ascertained that he would not be flying that day. All flights were cancelled from everywhere. Mark grew heartbroken as he realized he would miss David’s wedding; David never really recovered from the disappointment. Mark’s father, who would also be attending, lived within driving distance; he stepped up to fill in the honor but it wasn’t the same.

The rest of that particular day remains a blur. I know we talked to everyone in our immediate families to make sure they were okay, particularly after hearing about the subsequent attacks in Pennsylvania and on the Pentagon. I remember thinking, as I still do, that I was actually glad my father didn’t live to see this.

I know I went to work that day; that we focused on the attacks; that my rabbi and hundreds of his colleagues had to re-write their High Holy Day sermons; that we joined with the interfaith community to prepare, and eventually participate in, a service with our Unitarian, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim friends at one of the downtown churches. I know that I learned the Arabic verse to “Od Yavo Shalom” but I don’t remember the source. I know that I met with the local Imam to sing it for him in order to make sure I was doing so correctly and in a way that made sense.

I know a few other things, too. We went to war with Afghanistan shortly after, and even the most dovish among us thought we were doing the right thing. Flying, both domestic and international, has never been the same again and never will be; I haven’t flown since 2009 and don’t miss it. I know that the I-1600 form and process (“petition to adopt a foreign-born orphan” including fingerprints), which took half an afternoon to complete in order to welcome Harry, took fifteen months to complete in order to welcome his sister Xiao-Ling because homeland security had kicked in and was keeping out of the U.S. all the babies who supposedly needed parents but were probably really packing napalm or worse.

A lot of people think the world changed forever on September 11, 2001. For me it changed the day Challenger exploded in January 1986 because I knew that space travel, which I had held sacred as a little kid, was not really being tended as carefully as it should and, thanks to a frozen O-ring, we knew that there were people high up in NASA who really didn’t care whether anybody survived their games and experiments as long as they made their money.

But back to 9-11: The loss of life remains unfathomable. Practically everyone who died knew that the end was near and that they were being killed violently and with hatred. I shudder for their last moments even as I mourn for their lost lives. We celebrate the babies that were born of the pregnant widows of those who died. And we should. But there is a deeper, unreported sadness among some of these families; I personally know one who is experiencing “widow’s disconnect”. A young father died; his wife gave birth to twins soon after. The devastated grandparents should receive a great measure of comfort even in the face of unmeasurable grief….but their grandchildren’s mother has distanced herself from the family and they hardly ever see the twins. We don’t read about that stuff, but I know it secondhand as a cantor and thirdhand as a friend.

Basically I’m an east-coaster but I was living in New Mexico when the attacks took place. I lived in New York city for ten years, but I know I can never grieve, haven’t truly the right to do so, as one who was actually in an area where the attacks came. I can’t blame myself for that, but I can’t pretend I’m in a category I’m not. I was safe as cheese in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico and I can’t really know, will never really know, what it was like to live with a smoking, gaping hole in my home where once there lived, worked, and hummed a city within the city. Hell, *Working Girl*, one of my favorite films, took place there.

I came to New York on business about a month after the attacks. It was a typically sparkling day; the type that inspired Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York.” What did I see in my forever-changed city that day? I tried to feel the vibe in the sidewalk rumbles emanating from the subways rushing below my feet; and in the breeze from Central Park Lake as my friend Frank and I rowed a rented boat (I also remember that we laughed as we saw a condom floating insouciantly on the lake’s otherwise seemingly pristine surface). I strove to glean goodness from the old joys I remembered of living in this amazing helluva town, and seeing celebrities walk down the street and live like regular old goobs in a way they can’t do in Los Angeles as we ran into Kathleen Turner while buying ice cream at Haagen-Dazs. If the city could talk, it would have said, “We’re shaken. We’re stirred. The most and the least we can and must do is, we’re gonna keep on keeping on. Cause we have to.”

(Autumn in New York, Billie Holiday:) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cl_e7UW-bz8

In my mind, the ugliness that followed the rebuilding of Ground Zero has dishonored the dead and glorified the perpetrators. A mosque, whose purpose was peace and wholeness, has been reviled. A cross, which many of my close friends hold dear as a symbol of love, has been erected and vilified. The entire tragedy has been marginalized, staken claim to (“my loss is greater than your loss”) , commercialized, branded and marketed beyond belief. The dead have faded into the wings as mere window dressing in the scheme of our best excuses to hate and hate harder.

So I ask you to imagine with me today. First, think about the people you want to destroy, or keep out of our country, or kick out of our country, or hope you never meet. You won’t be able to get a clear reading on them because guess what? Those people don’t have faces. You’ve never met them, you don’t know them, you’re lumping them into a big fuzzy group and truly you have no idea who they are so you can’t imagine them. Don’t tell me you live in Texas or Arizona or Baja California and you know what you’re talking about. Trust me, the imaginary people who live in the cement block you’ve added to your heart and built a barbed-wire fence around, don’t have a face. So there is nothing there for you to hold on to. So take that cement block full of blurry non-people who don’t exist and let’s do a little trick with it that we learned from our favorite creepy episode of The Twilight Zone: Let’s put it in the cornfield.

The next thing I’m going to ask you to do is something really painful but it’s really real. I want you to picture the people who died that day. Not all of us know someone who died in the planes or in the towers, but all of us knows someone who knew someone who knew someone who died, and that’s enough for this exercise. That’s a really real person. I’m going to picture the boss of my niece’s ex-boyfriend, who was flying from Boston Logan Airport; and I’m going to picture my old opera acquaintance Stephen Poulos, who dated a dear soprano friend of mine back in the 80s. I’m also going to picture two grandparents I know well, whose hearts will never stop breaking over the loss of their son by violence; and of their twin grandchildren by their mother’s choice and neglect. Please imagine and join with me. In the space of your heart where you kept that Gitmo cel you just put in the cornfield, I want you to rebuild a new chamber. This one is decorated in the finest, softest fabrics you can imagine; it is painted in peace and in vibrance and in rest; it is warm in winter and cool and summer. In this room live the dead and devastated of 9/11/01; those whom you know, and those whom you don’t. Open your arms in your mind and welcome them in. Hold them tenderly and give them a place to rest. Let your tears nourish the soil around their home even as they heal and cleanse your soul. This is going to hurt…. and then it’s going to help.

And let’s be good to each other. You know what else I remember? That for about five minutes, the entire world that was left behind pulled together. We really did. That lasted through Thanksgiving I think, and faded with he final notes of “God Bless America” that was belted out from a lot of pulpits. Then we got mad and acted on our anger. Can we go back to that other time? Please? And can we stay there until we fix a few things and stop flouting “my belief emblem” as being better than “your belief emblem”?

Here’s what I remember most of all: on September 11, 2001 the weekly Torah portion was Ha-azinu. It’s the second-to-last portion in Deuteronomy and Moses is, shall we say, deeply pissed. He knows he’s about to die. He knows he’s not going to make it to the promised land even though he’s been working his ass off to get everybody else in there. He’s been living in the desert with 650,000 disgruntled Israelites and their offspring for the past 40 years, his family is dead, he’s exhausted, he’s disappointed, and he’s about to really let us have it. Which he does, in verse after verse of the most tersely poetic, difficult-to-read-and-articulate Hebrew in the entire TaNaKh. You don’t even have to be acquainted with Hebrew – just start Deuteronomy 32:1 from any Bible or website, and you’ll really cringe. I mean, Moses says things I can compare to lectures from my early grade school teachers in East Tennessee in the late 1960s, and they weren’t pleasant to hear back then either.

How Ha'azinu looks in a Torah Scroll

How Ha’azinu looks in a Torah Scroll

Ha’azinu is also known as the Song of Moses. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haazinu Like the Ten Commandments, Song of the Sea and the Priestly Benediction, it is considered a poem. Each of these poems is laid out and hand-lettered into specific shapes and schemes in the Torah scroll, which makes them easy to find among other things. If you look at the shape of Ha-azinu in the Sefer Torah, you will find that its verses are sculpted into a scheme of two columns, divided by a huge space in the middle. A pair of tall, slim, majestic, precisely architectured ….. twin towers.

 

Migdol = tower

Migdol = tower

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Blog Elul: Slipping Through My Fingers

cookielogan

Wise, warm, wonderful woman.
Fully present when we spoke just three days ago.
Guided me every step of the way necessary on the road to motherhood.
Sat by my side and held my hand through grueling, painful “futility” tests.
Spun me the wondrous tale of how she and Bert became Jackie’s parents
(Logan was homemade) – I knew I had to travel the same path
so I tossed the test tubes, banished the butt injections, canned the clomid…
kissed Korea hello, “Anyong. Anaseiyo!”.
Cookie and Bert cried happy tears of yes to stand godparents to Harry
….Hours curled up on her sofas… she could never visit my house for more than five minutes because the only animals her allergies could tolerate were her adored poodles…
wailing “WHY?” (mostly me)…
culling answers (mostly her)
healing hugs and hearty howls…
We only ever disagreed on one thing, and quickly put it in the cornfield
because our love and friendship was worth a hella lot more than that.
You even played Hagrid in our Harry Potter Purimspiel!
and WHAT THE F#@% are we all gonna do now??????
But we’ll figure it out. It’s the least we can do. For you.
Because you did it all. ALL. For us. And for our kids.
Marlyn Cookie Gillespie, I love you to Pluto and back, always and forever.
Your memory is a blessing but your blessing is more than a memory.
10 September 2014 / 16 Elul 5774
Always,
proud to be
your second-favorite Jac(k)quie.
Third if you count your mom z”l
whom, thought it may not sound very Jewish of me,
I hope you are holding in heaven.

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Blog Elul: For words, there’s always time.

"I'm'on TELL you sumpin'"

“I’m’on TELL you sumpin'”

Q: What’s the difference between a Northern fairy tale and a Southern fairy tale?

A: A Northern fairy tale begins, “Once Upon a Time.”
A Southern fairy tale begins, “Y’all ain’t gonna be-LIEVE this!!”

Truth is stranger than fiction. Real life trumps the be-Moses out of fairy tales. I attended a Bar/t Mitzvah not too long ago during which I heard a loud whisper from one of the guests behind me, “Can you believe that kid’s related to [name withheld] and still sings so well?”

My mind started racing: “Really? Am I the only one who heard this? I cannot believe I just heard it live and not recorded or scripted…Did she think those words before she said them?” Though I managed to not turn my head in the direction of the speaker, my eyes widened so that my son noticed.

Half a day or so later I processed this vignette into the conclusion that the speaker hadn’t meant to be mean. Ultimately s/he was expressing a compliment, even if the words served up as a back-handed lob. And who was I to judge? I’ve been all too guilty of the same thing. My voice carries even when I whisper, and my reactions to the words and actions of others have all too often sprung to life through heated words.

Friends was one of the best sit-coms of all time. In one episode, after Phoebe makes an explosive verbal gaffe, Monica says to her, “Pheebs, you remember how we talked about saying things quietly to yourself first?” to which Phoebe retorts immediately, “Yes, but there isn’t always time!” Back when the episode aired, I believed Phoebe; I even fell back on this scene once after I got called out on a similar crime. I was wrong. There is always time.

A lot of people reading this are laughing themselves silly right now, and it isn’t because I’m a funny writer. My tongue has long been declared a weapon of mass destruction when it comes to diplomacy; or the lack thereof. Unfortunately, that’s never going to completely go away because I don’t suffer fools gladly. But if I want certain things in life, like friends, jobs, untraumatized students and happy children, I have to make some changes, and believe me, that’s happening. But I don’t want to lose myself completely in these changes. I want to be better, but I don’t want to be perfect.

But there are times when, like our neighbor in shul, we totally mean well but our words deliver a slap along with a kiss. What’s that all about? Maybe we’ve got something in our craw that gets in the way of the delivering the goodness unsullied. Maybe we don’t know what that stuck thing is. Maybe we need to take the time to find out. But is there always time?

If there’s only one thing I need to remember here, it’s that there is always time. Time to think about what I want to say so that the words convey exactly what I mean. Time to get the emotional hairball out of the way before speaking. Time to make someone glad they spoke to me instead of sorry. Even time, as I take time to choose words, to let the other person hear some meaning in the silence before my response. A lot can happen in that time. Eyes can meet eyes, breaths can cleanse bodies, souls can take inspiration, minds can receive understanding. And at last, the words I release can affirm instead of refute; heal instead of hurt; enlighten instead of defend.

Oh, I’ll still be a force to be reckoned with. Maybe even a bigger one. After all, I wouldn’t want you to think I wasn’t feeling well. But I’ll add sacred space as a prelude to my words. They matter. And so do you.

L’shalom,

Cantor Jacquie

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Blog Elul: Begin To Continue

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” ― Anne Frank

According to the rabbis, there are really four New Years: New Year for the Trees (Tu B’Shvat), New Year for cattle, formerly for animal tithes (Rosh Chodesh Elul), Rosh Chodesh Nisan (new year for kings and festivals) and Rosh HaShanah (the birthday of the world, at the seventh month).  To be sure, the “four” acknowledges the rabbis’ lack of consensus on which one is truly THE New Year (two hundred Jews; three hundred opinions, right?), but peace among the learned ranks definitely counts as a plus toward shalom bayit (“peace in the home”).
 
In modernity, we get an extra takeaway: four opportunities to start anew. Old-school opinion may frown upon too many do-overs. However, in typical Jewish fashion, advantage comes hand-in-hand with challenge: with each granted opportunity, we are obligated to make the effort.  Anne Frank wrote the above quote in her diary while hiding from the Nazis for two years from ages twelve to fourteen.  Perhaps Anne has hit upon the fifth New Year: each new day that gives us the gift of a fresh start – as well as the responsibility.
 
Anne was right We need not wait.  Nor need we focus on changing the whole world; for each true change begins with oneself.  I look upon each new day as an opportunity to start over, but the highlight of a New Year still continues to chime significantly for me through changes in the weather, in my family’s schedule, and in nature’s colorful costume change.  Russet tones ring in my ear as a minor key, which herald’s our High Holy Days Hashivenu (Turn Us):
 
“Turn us, Adonai, to you; and we shall be turned
Renew our days as of old.”
 
Do you know what I love best about this prayer? That in order to move forward, we not only get to look back, we must look back.  Whoever said you can’t go home again was wrong.  We must go home again. We must bravely go back to the perfection we were at the beginning of our existence. We must revisit; we must forgive others; we must forgive ourselves.  We must retrace our steps back and pre-trace them forward.  We must find out where things changed; when our eyes were opened; when our fears began to grow; when we began to get in our own way.  We must come back to the present with the best of what we found way back when.  The best that we can hope for in moving forward to become the best we can be is that tasty combination of refreshment and re-energy.

Do we need to change?  Possibly not.  Probably so.  Our very molecules change constantly without any effort from us.  Seven years from now not one of our physical cells will be the same as it is now.  Do we not owe ourselves a regeneration of the soul to match that of the body?  Take courage; take the journey back.  It’s a round-trip; not a one-way.  And just as we wish each other on a physical trip, so do I wish us all “N’siyah tovah” – a good journey.  Go in peace and return in peace.  

Welcome back to a New Year.
 
L’shanah tovah u-metukah,
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It was forty years ago this week….

It was forty years ago this week...My Bat Mitzvah – par’shat Lech L’cha, 2 November 1973 / 8 Heshvan 5734

Friday, November 2, 1973, my thirteenth birthday, corresponded to 8 Heshvan 5734 in the lunar Hebrew calendar. The Yom Kippur War now resided a month into world history. Vice President Ford approved the decision to investigate President Nixon in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. On the other side of the world, the two factions of the Communist Party in India formed a united front in the state of Tripura. Roxy Music’s Stranded was the number one album on the billboard charts; and Pippin ruled Broadway with 5 Tonys and five Drama Desk awards.

Yes, we read Torah on a Friday in my Knoxville synagogue. You couldn’t expect the yidden to miss a Vols home game to come to services, could you? The weekly portion was Lech l’cha, as it is this week. My rabbi was my only tutor. Like a spiritual dogie, or orphaned calf, I’m a cantor who grew up without a cantor; even today the synagogue hires a cantor only for the High Holy Days.

And so it was that I read my Torah portion instead of chanting it. I wouldn’t learn to read trope, or chant Scripture, until twenty years later as a cantorial student in Israel. As was the custom in my synagogue, I read my Haftarah (designated weekly lesson from the Prophets which the rabbis catalogued to match up with the Torah reading; in my case Isaiah 41) in English, and that was considered a more than respectable load of responsibility besides the prayers I would lead. Our Reform congregation belonged to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC, now the URJ, or Union for Reform Judaism), and we used the small, dark-blue Union Prayerbook.

I stood five feet tall and would grow six inches in the following year. I wore a floor-length dashiki of cream-colored linen with a wide embroidered swath down the front of it . My mother wore the same garment in royal blue. She bought the bolts of cloth in Israel, and we had them created into the Afro-Semitic confections that cloaked us in sartorial zeitgeist. I had actually refused a party and instead asked my parents to recruit all their friends to “bake their butts off” for the Oneg Shabbat (reception following the service).

My Torah portion began with Genesis 12:1 in which God calls Abram, later Abraham, to drop everything and get going. At the age of 75, Abram packs up his considerable household, livestock, goods and business and follows God on foot. There is no road map or GPS. There are no rest stops. There is no “Are we there yet?” There is only “Go until I say when.”

What’s interesting about the Torah’s writing style is the lack of personal conjecture. We don’t know what Abram thinks of all this. We’re not privy to his inner battles, feelings of shock, or questions why this, why now. Did Abram have a problem with creaky joints at his age? Did his wife, Sarai, later Sarah, tell him, “You’re crazy!” (I bet she did)? Logistical gaps like these are present in every Torah story, and they are what keeps us coming back to them and discussing them over and over again.

Back in 1973 if you got on the path, you stayed on the path. Becoming Bat Mitzvah meant that I was committed to sticking with my formal Jewish education through tenth grade and confirmation. There were students who skipped the Bar/Bat Mitzvah and stuck with religious school through confirmation, but it was unheard of to have the “B.M. and Out” that is all too prevalent these days. I stuck with it even though we lived forty miles away from the temple and I had strong commitments to school band and choir; to piano lessons, flute lessons and their required practice hours.

I knew I wanted to study for a Bat Mitzvah ever since I was five and attended Bobby Schnitman’s Bar Mitzvah. Somehow that experience made a great impact on me. I’d like to say that Bobby’s command of the Hebrew, or his leading the congregation at such a young age, was what inspired me on my quest. But at the time the only goal I can remember is, “if boys can do this, girls can too.” It never occurred tcommitmento me that we couldn’t. I was unaware that there wouldn’t be a female rabbi ordained in the Reform movement until a year and a half before I became Bat Mitzvah. I had no plan as to what I would do with my knowledge or experience. Like Abram/Abraham, I saw myself at one end of a journey and figured it would go one step at a time. I was lucky to have parents who, like Israeli generals, led me on my path rather than sent me on it. And the path was the point of it all, not the destination.

Forty years ago, I was taught that people believed in making plans and sticking to them. But we never asked what Plan B was. If anyone had told me back then that I should end up being a cantor…. and they did…. I would have said they were crazy…. and I did. In many languages and cultures there is a saying, “Man plans, God laughs.” No matter what your vision of God, no matter what your vision of the future – this summation of world faiths kind of lets us off the hook even as it seeks to keep our eyes focused ahead – and that’s what I like about it. There’s a reason God told Abram “Lech l’cha”…. Get Going …. Instead of “Bo l’cha” ….. Come on already. It’s every single step that begets the next. I can’t wait to see what the coming forty years will bring. Shabbat Shalom.

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Dr. Isa Aron, Cantors Are Not the Problem

Abraham

Abraham

Dr. Isa Aron, HUC-JIR

Dr. Isa Aron, HUC-JIR

First off, please read the following New York Times article on revamping the Bar Mitzvah. My follow-up is an adaptation of a response I posted on my two alumni listservs. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/04/us/bar-mitzvahs-get-new-look-to-build-faith.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

The article ends thus: Some parents, rabbis and cantors are resistant to change, said Dr. Aron, the professor at Hebrew Union College. At some synagogues, she said, “the cantorial staff thinks nothing is broken” because the b’nai mitzvah ceremonies themselves can be quite beautiful and moving. “[Bar/Bat] mitzvah is the third rail,” she said. “We don’t touch this lightly, because the ritual is so deeply embedded in American religious culture.”

Dr. Isa Aron is Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.  HUC-JIR ordains the rabbis and cantors, and certifies the Jewish educators, who then are hired by Reform synagogues in the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly Union of American Hebrew Congregations). HUC-JIR is the seminary I attended from 1993-1997.  At the end of that time I earned a Master of Sacred Music and was ordained a Cantor-in-Israel.  I attended HUC’s Jerusalem and New York campuses so I never met Dr. Aron.  

In December at the URJ’s national biennial convention in San Diego, Dr. Aron is to be honored as a keynote speaker.  Over five thousand rabbis, cantors, temple administrators/ executive directors, temple board members and other lay delegates will be focused on Dr. Aron’s teachings as “Jospel” for the better part of the five-day convention.

Dr. Aron’s comment at the end of the article may have been taken out of context, but it doesn’t matter because the comment is the takeaway.  I wanted to post a comment on the article but the comment section was closed.  So I shared a link to the column on both of my Facebook sites with the caption, “Dr. Aron, you are mistaken. The cantorial staff KNOWS something is broken. We are the ones who work most closely with the students, especially the ones who never return. Don’t scapegoat us.”

How long must we stand idly by and allow cantors to be slapped in the face, especially by a faculty member of the seminary that ordained so many of us?  I don’t want the half-baked apology I’m told she made to the ACC (American Conference of Cantors) president.  I don’t want to hear, “I’m sorry you interpreted it that way” or other such unnacounted-for cop-out.  When cantors see and hear the following, there’s no way we don’t know there’s a problem:

“My kid’s got soccer/football/basketball/track/all of the above, can we change/skip/cancel the Bar/t Mitzvah lesson this week?”

“I didn’t get to practice my lesson because I had (fill in the blank nonemergency).”

“Johnny didn’t practice because (technical difficulty with a sound file or a Hebrew question that the kid or the parents could have asked the cantor during the week and that the cantor could have fixed in two seconds, guaranteeing the kid a much more productive week).

I’ve seen drop-off kids sitting alone at services; kids whose parents never set foot in the sanctuary until the week before the Bar/t Mitzvah.  I’ve seen jock families who literally quit the temple the Monday after the simcha. I’ve had to put more energy into keeping divorced parents and grandparents fifty yards away from each other (or out of the sanctuary completely) than I was able to put into the poor kid whose day it was.

But I’ve also seen congregations whose members attend Shabbat services no matter what (or whose) day it is.  I’ve heard their voices singing along as the child leads them in prayer, encouraging the kid’s leadership strengths.  I’ve seen kids who wouldn’t let their parents leave the temple; kids who started going to camp after their Bar/t Mitzvah and thrived there even though they hadn’t been attending from third grade up. So not everything’s amiss.  There are some miraculous little seeds of growth which we can nurture and turn into beanstalks.  If the URJ is going to talk, talk, talk and task-force yet again without getting first-hand information from people who’ve actually dug in the trenches – and yes, that means every congregational cantor out there today – then many potential sacred moments are going to turn out simply as lab experiments.

The Jewish calendar has lots of New Years.  Although my Bat Mitzvah took place on November 2, 1973 (my actual 13th birthday), next week will be 40 years since my Bat Mitzvah. The Torah portion for the week was, and will be “Lech L’cha” beginning with Genesis 12:1.  Here, God calls Abram (later, Abraham) to a life-altering challenge at the age of 75.  I’ll speak on my perspectives November 1973; from Union Prayerbook to Gates of Prayer to Mishkan Tefila; from mandatory continuation through Confirmation to teaching kids whose parents just want their kids to like them.  I don’t expect to cause a revolution, or even an evolution, but as the great Torah scholar Shrek once said, “Better out than in.”

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And on the eighth day, God found me anyway.

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This year for the first time, I took the extra day of Sukkot.
Until now I took the “what’s good enough for Israel is good enough for me,” approach.  As a lifelong Reform Jew, I’d celebrated seven days the way Israel does, instead of eight days as in the non-Reform world outside Israel.

The extra day to most festivals hearkens back to the days before electricity or newspapers, when the holiday would be heralded from the mountains of Judea via bonfire. As people saw the fires being lit they would light further fires, thereby spreading the word.  Since such signals took a long time to travel, people would celebrate an extra day to make sure they hadn’t missed anything.  It’s always a good idea for a progressive synagogue to rely on two calendars – that of the local funeral home (traditional) and the purse-size Women of Reform Judaism calendar, which I used to call my palm pilot; in order to keep coordinates on holy days and their prescribed readings.  When I know what my brothers and sisters are up to, I feel connected even if my calendar  says something a little different.
I’m working a little more traditional beat than before.  I serve the local Reconstructionist synagogue in Chapel Hill part-time for Shabbat, and I lead High Holy Days in Tennessee at a synaogue that is officially Reform but uses a Conservative machzor (High Holy Days prayer book), siddur (all other occasions prayer book) and luach (calendar).   Both congregations are egalitarian; otherwise they probably wouldn’t have the likes of me working there.

I find meaning in practices that shed light; make common sense; bring people together; love God while loving the best in people.  I have no tolerance for observances that serve to grandstand; striate; drive people apart or hurt anyone’s feelings egregiously.  My special passion lies in laws and customs that bank on both spiritual and practical (medical, scientific, agricultural) reasons.  Moses ben Maimon, otherwise known as the Rambam or Maimonides, was both a doctor and a rabbi.  I coined a meme to fall back on when I grow weary of the needless chasm between academia and spirituality:  “Dear Science and Religion: While you were arguing over which one of you is best, I got a medical degree AND became ordained. Love, Maimonides.”

So here I am with my children; Reform Jews living in a Reconstructionist community.  We like the congregation; the rabbi; the upbeat-down-to-earth genuine feeling and lack of pretense.  My kids even like religious school.  I’ve always believed that Jews are Jews no matter how we’re affiliated, and I’m grooving on the progressive commonality.  At the same time, I’m learning the ropes.  That’s the case in any new community:  each synagogue has its own “minhag ha-makom” (local custom) that makes it unique, but that also makes sense to itself.  Whether you light candles at the beginning of the service and bless the wine immediately afterwards; or wait till after the Mourner’s Kaddish to bless the wine; or bless the wine and challah at the Oneg; or choose not to light candles in the temple at all in order to encourage everybody to do that at home before sunset – you’re right, as long as you’re Hippocratical and not hypocritical.  No Jewish act, custom or law should be purposely divisive.

And so it was that two nights ago my Reform friends and colleagues were celebrating Simchat Torah, which is when we finish reading Deuteronomy; start all over again with Genesis in the Big Inning; and dance with the Torah scrolls for the sheer joy of embracing our greatest teaching and prototype…literally.   For the first time since my ordinatione I felt a step behind them; Simchat Torah occurs one night later at my synagogue.  Irrationally I thought: Would there be anything left for me to celebrate?  Would God think me tardy?  Are my feet in step with my head here?  I actually had difficulty falling asleep over this.
But the next morning, the eighth morning, was Yizkor, the festival memorial service, which puts all observant Jews on the same page for at least a couple of hours.  And then the rabbi led Geshem and I was home again.  Geshem (“rain”) is a beautiful piyyut (liturgical petition) asking God to bless us with rain (the rainy season in Israel begins now) for the sake of our matriarchs and patriarchs; citing Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah’s histories with water as examples.  Sukkot and its conclusion historically marked the last harvest until spring; the fulfillment of Geshem brings the promise of continued sustenance in the year to come.

As a cantorial student at HUC-JIR I was assigned several pratica to present before the students and faculty.  One of these was Geshem; the haunting autumnal melody of the poem and its surrounding prayers is a musical harbinger of the coming gray months.  One of the sad aspects about being a Reform cantor is this:  We learn tons of gorgeous repertoire, both traditional and modern; and out in the real world we get the opportunity to use less than a tenth of that material.  But this morning I rediscovered Geshem in the rabbi’s lyrical chanting thereof.  And while the earth may prepare for a nap in the months after it bursts into flaming color only to drop its dress for winter, she is restoring and regenerating for a new spring to come.  I can be like that too.  When we speak of stopping and smelling the roses, we picture full-blown summer with a multi-colored backdrop.  Fall and winter tend to bring depression, but maybe that’s just a signal to our bodies and minds to slow down a bit in keeping with the earth’s template.

Last summer I pushed and shoved to get here, to Chapel Hill and Carrboro.  I packed and unpacked hundreds of boxes, drove thousands of miles in several round trips to get everything and everyone where it was supposed to go, including getting the kids to and from camp in Pennsylvania.  I nearly drove myself insane with exhaustion in the process and actually landed in the emergency room once.   At the end of that journey, my sweet small home with its artwork made by friends and family; my work cut out for me in my dream locality; many of my friends in closer proximity than before…. that is my harvest.  Sure, there’s work ahead. There are further blooms to hope for, and the current ones must be nourished and cultivated as well.    Growth often happens when we’re focusing in another direction, rather than breathing down the neck of the same old cause day after day.  During Geshem my rabbi wore her kittel – her future burial garment –  to symbolize the balance between life and death at earth’s transition between the warm season and the rainy one.  Colors fade.  Leaves fall.  We think of trees as dying but actually they are going to sleep for the winter as hibernating animals do.   Trees are not lazy.  They’re doing some very important regeneration while they rest.  So do humans, if we allow enough rest for ourselves.

So I’ll stop and smell some snowflakes this winter.  I’ll work hard and I’ll rest harder.  I hope I can follow-through on a much -needed promise to go to bed earlier at  night.  Very soon, a lot of significant little things will make clearer sense.  And isn’t that what a New Year is really all about?

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My latest, greatest grandmother…

Thinking of Molly Kuris Shuchat, my grandmother-in-love who never turned her back on me even after her grandson and I parted ways. We had a wonderful phone talk on Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773 (2012) ; ten days later Bubbe Molly crossed the bridge – a year ago tonight. It is said that one who dies on Yom Kippur ascends directly to heaven. As much as I miss her, Yom Kippur is all the more special for me because that’s when Molly made the journey she had so longed for – and she made it in her best suit with her hair done so she could arrive in style. Gamart tovah, Bubbe – you finished well indeed.Image

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I wish everyone who is fasting a “tzom kal” (easy fast) and a favorable sealing in the Book of Life. However, I have no apologies to make, and if I did I wouldn’t be grandstanding them via social media. For my part, I’m happy to have emerged from a cluster of difficult years. I’m fortunate to have loved ones who continue to cheer me on, but I did and am doing all the work myself. I’m actually through apologizing after more than half a century of doing so. So either take me as I am or go elsewhere. That is all.

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