Back in the States -- on what was Christmas Eve day -- I'm sure many people were finding themselves making all sorts of unplanned last-minute Christmas-gift purchases when they spied something out of the corner of their eyes on the way to the checkout line. But last night in Tzfat (צפת/Safed), the ancient mountaintop center of Jewish mysticism, when Minna headed to the checkout line at a little food store, what caught her eye were the tools -- 9 little shot glasses packed together in a box, wicks that can float on the top of oil and bottles of olive oil meant just for the task -- to make an oil-burning menorah.
As darkness fell, we lit five of the little lamps -- four for the fourth day of Hanukah and one as the "Shamas" -- out on the balcony of the little hotel where we came to stay in this northern Israel town for a couple of days. I had been here on Hankuah once before and fondly remembered the sight of many little glass boxes outside the houses with the little oil lamps inside -- the Jewish tradition asks us to "publicize the miracle" by lighting where other people can see, which is why we lit on the balcony of our little room.
We didn't have a wind-protecting glass box to put our little shot glasses into, so I didn't feel safe leaving them alone. We sat out on the balcony watching them burn for well over an hour, trying to keep warm under a blanket, snacking on crackers and cheese and listening to some NPR from back in the States.
Tzfat is a strange and magical place. It is so much like Jerusalem with their Old City's of winding, narrow medieval streets and stairways made of light-colored stone and with their hilliness. But there's a quietness to Tzfat that both adds to its charm and that makes it seem unreal compared to the stark reality of Jerusalem, a city that despite being much smaller than New York has an intense bustle quite like that largest of American cities. Jerusalem -- especially the Old City -- is very much at the intersection of the Jewish and Muslim worlds, with its intensely coveted Holy sites important to both faiths and its large minority Muslim population. In Jerusalem -- as peaceful as it can be at times and as safe as I usually feel when I am there -- it is impossible to forget that you are in a place that has been warred over pretty much continuously in one way or another for a very long time now. Tzfat, on the other hand, is a place that is only Holy to the Jews (although the Arabs certainly fought for it in the 1948 war, as the war memorials in the center of town attest).
The city is held most Holy by the Hasidim, who make a practice of visiting the graves of the famous scholars of Kabbalah -- like Isaac Luria -- and praying there. Yesterday afternoon, Minna and I walked down through the steep hillside cemetary to the grave of Joseph Karo. It was cold and rainy, but we enjoyed our walk. It is a privilege to be able to have this time with Minna in the Holy Land, and I will be sorry to leave in a week-and-a-half after this too-short trip.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Monday, December 15, 2008
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Ouch! My legs and arms are still quite wonderfully stiff and achy from yesterday's short but steep hike on Mount Arbel. The end involved climbing up the side of the cliff using a series of metal hand/foot holds that are permanently installed. Our terrific guide, Missy (who was hiking in a long skirt), was thoroughly nonchalant about this hike. There was no warning beforehand (e.g., for people who are afraid of heights) nor any hint really that there would be any seemingly insurmountable challenges ahead. She was very aware of what the hike entailed (she and her family had just gone the previous week) and I guess she simply assumed that we would all make it one way or another. I actually found this "ignorance (on our part) is bliss" approach to a physical challenge very refreshing. As we were on the last stretch of the hike (when the ascent had turned back into a stairway cut in the mountain and I no longer needed to use my arms as well as my legs to propel me) one of my colleagues asked how I was doing. By now there were quite a bit of endorphins kicking in and I found myself beaming and calling out, "I feel like a mountain goat!" I hope to go on this hike again (maybe with Alan and/or my parents and brother and his family).
I was on the hike with my colleagues from the Rav Siach program and it was an inspiring way to kick off our shabbat together. As one participant reported, he was physically awed by our hike, intellectually awed by our discussions and arguments and spiritually awed by our praying together and what a rare chance for all three to come together. This group of rabbinic students from different denominations (plus me from no denomination) were in for a challenging weekend; spending shabbat with a group of people who feel strongly about their widely divergent approaches and practices can be difficult, painful, and tiring. At one point in planning this shabbat, we had discussed trying to see if we could set it up so that there was an equal distribution of discomfort. I had it easy in many regards: my own rabbinical school community is pluralistic and diverse (though admittedly much of that diversity is muted by our desire to remain a cohesive community) and I have been exposed to and enjoyed serving a wide variety of Jewish communities.
Shabbat started with an unscripted "bang" which was such a classic multi-denominational "mishap" that it almost seemed as if it had been scripted: After lighting candles, we walked to the room where we were supposed to be praying and learning together. The light in the room was off. Our coordinator, who is Orthodox and doesn't turn lights on and off on shabbat, was embarrassed that she hadn't set this up before shabbat started and she (and the rest of us) all froze. At this point, before anyone could move fast enough to talk about why this was a problem, a considerate Reform rabbinical student, who has no problem using electricity on shabbat, stepped forward to turn the light on. Now our Orthodox rabbinical student, who was already stretching himself right to the limit of what he could deal with because of his deep desire to be with the rest of us for shabbat, stepped aside and would not enter the room (because of a prohibition on causing another Jew to do work which he sees as violating shabbat even if the Jew doing the work doesn't see it this way). We all stood around outside the room looking at each other and one of the Conservative rabbinical students spoke rather sharply to the well-meaning and now very embarrassed Reform student.
It was, in some ways, exactly the kind of dilemma that no amount of discussing could have brought to the fore. What a marvelous opportunity! But first we had to find a place to pray and learn together while we figured out what to do about our "ruined" room...From this crisis point of (what some saw as) violations of shabbat, harsh words, and hurt feelings, we were "off and running" for a shabbat of difficult and ultimately wonderful conversation, including a level of honesty that we might never have otherwise reached. Much anger, confusion, love, frustration was dug up and I am now deeply curious to see where we go from here. If nothing else, I deeply admire the willingness each of my colleagues (and, I hope, new friends) to share our truths with one another.
There is so much else I was hoping to share here! As Alan mentioned in his other blog, I went to a very moving funeral last week. I didn't know Rabbi Mickey Rosen well at all, but I have been going to Yakar, the shul and learning center he founded, for services most Friday evenings. Even from the few times I heard him daven (pray) and heard him speak, it was clear to me that I wanted to connect with him more, I very much wanted to learn from him. I went to his funeral, at least in part, out of the sense that we have a long tradition of learning from our rabbis even (and sometimes especially) from their deaths. There were too many people to fit in the room designated for giving eulogies; there were hundreds and hundreds of people. I stood in the middle of the crowd waiting to go into the room and did not have any reason to push to the front. Consequently, when they decided to simply bring his body into the middle of the crowd, I ended up standing right next to the men holding the stretcher. Jews in Israel are buried without coffins, wrapped in a tallit. One striking thing from the two funerals I have attended since arriving in July is how very small people look in death.
Rabbi Rosen's wife stood near his body and said that he hadn't wanted them to call any great rabbis to eulogize him and that he hadn't wanted anyone to say much of anything, but that she wanted to tell us some things that we might not have known. She said that he had been battling illness for many many years. Yet when he went to the מכלת/makolet/grocery each day and the man behind the counter asked how he was, he always answered "כוסי רוויה/cosi revayah/my cup runneth over." She also said that when there was something he did not have strength for he would say how he really thought God had wanted him to do this, but that perhaps this was not the case if he was not being given the strength...then he would push on and do it anyway. And she said that all his life he would dream and then do and that he kept dreaming right until the end. And when she asked him if he was sad about dying, he said that because of his children and the joy they brought him, he was not sad. When she finished her brief words, she said we would now do as he had them do in shul: we would be silent for a few moments and then we would sing. Rabbi Rosen's illness made him look to me much older than he was. His voice was shaky, but I loved his singing and the singing of his family and his congregation. To be with him in his death, surrounded by this song is a learning I will not soon forget.
One other thing I wanted to mention, and then I have to go to sleep because I have another hike tomorrow (ouch!): December is a month of many sad anniversaries for me (tragic deaths and near deaths) and I often feel simply very sad: not necessarily depressed, but aware of an undercurrent of sorrow. Yet this December (the aforementioned funeral not withstanding) I haven't been having these feelings. I suspect that the weather has fooled my system. It should be cold and rainy, and because of the drought one is not really allowed (culturally speaking) to talk about how beautiful the weather has been. But the sunny and only slightly cool days have definitely tricked me (so far!!!) out of my December blues.
Tomorrow marks the 16th anniversary of the murders at my college. I will be remembering those who died, those who were wounded, and all of us who suffered losses and traumas that night. May this warm December warm my remembering heart.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
When people hear me sing, they often like to tell me who I sound like. Given the range of very different suggestions, I usually assume that what they are telling me has more to do with them than it does with me (e.g., Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Tracy Chapman...not exactly birds of a feather vocally speaking). Consequently, I don't pay much attention to these comparisons; they don't make any emotional impact on me. There are two exceptions, singers I will admit I am deeply proud to be compared to: Ronnie Gilbert and Odetta.
As announced on the homepage of the New York Times' website, Odetta has died. There is a wonderful video of an interview with her as part of the Times' "Last Word" series. In the video she talks about how some of her own earliest connections with the songs of African-American workers, prisoners, and slaves were from the recordings of Alan Lomax. Reflecting on what she connected with in the music she says, "You're walking down life's road, society's foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can't get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life." Those who wrote and sang these songs insisted on life. At the interviewers request, she also talks about her personal wounds from the overt racism of the 1950s. "But what the wound caused --the fear, the hate...-- the music has healed," she says firmly, "I'm not saying I love everybody...but it helped me shuck that off. It helped me see myself, instead of waiting for somebody to look at me and say that I'm OK." Using singing to help people see themselves in this way is a big part of my work as a voice teacher.
I knew Odetta mostly from an LP my parents had. It introduced me to her "Freedom Trilogy." She sang this medley from the stage at the 1963 March on Washington and it includes "I'm On My Way" which I have adopted as a song to use in association with Passover and the Book of Exodus (and with any other occasion where I can get away with it). On the same album, if memory serves, is her wrenching rendition of the sea chanty "Santa Ana." Though my shipmates would likely never have guessed, my own chantying drew much more inspiration from her than from any sailor.
I saw Odetta twice. She came to Eastern Long Island to perform once when I was a kid. I remember the performance space being very small and feeling almost overwhelmed by how her voice and her presence filled it. I remember the performance as having happened at the Parish Art Museum in Southampton, but I'm not 100% sure. One thing I do remember for sure about that performance: She sang a song that was a setting of some of the words of Winnie the Pooh. After singing it, she laughed and said, "Words by A. A. Milne, music by O. Odetta."
The second time I saw her, I actually got to meet her. I was performing with Clearwater's Hudson River Sloopsingers at Symphony Space in Manhattan. I don't remember what the occasion was, but Odetta was also on the bill and after our set, I ran into her backstage. Completely struck by her strength and her grace, I stood in front of her awestruck and then managed to say, "You are a beautiful woman." She fixed me with her gaze and, with that voice that was simultaneously both crystal clear and connected with untold and complicated depths, she answered slowly: "Takes one to know one." I do wish that I could have known her more.
"Range" is the word that comes to mind, not only in describing Odetta's singing but in seeing how full a swath of the spectrum of human ways of being she embodied in that singing: easy fearlessness, both woundedness and healing, cutting intelligence, and playful, even flirtatious, humor. Everything she had, everything she was, poured through her voice. I think of Odetta as one of my musical/spiritual foremothers; I feel blessed to be in her lineage.
Click here for a recording of Odetta singing "Take This Hammer." My favorite verse: "If he asks you, was I running, tell him I was flying, boys, tell him I was flying."