Monday, April 21, 2014

What makes this blog different from all other blogs?

More so than on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, I feel that Passover is a true time of reckoning when it comes to our Jewish faith. We reaffirm our Judaism, reveling in the miracle of our continued survival and finding stability in the Seder table traditions that bring families and generations together. These things are invaluable, and they contributed to my own Jewish journey immensely. The exodus from Egypt, the centerpiece of the Seder table, is the most pivotal and defining moment for the Jewish people… but I just don’t see myself as having been a part of it. I don’t feel as though I was a slave in Egypt, and the Seder’s many metaphors don’t help me feel connected to my enslaved ancestors, either. Do I believe there was an Exodus? Absolutely. I believe there was a migration — perhaps a smaller-scale and more gradual one, but a migration nonetheless — that caused a landmark shift in Jewish settlement and peoplehood. But I don’t believe that it happened the way the Haggadah assures me it did. Passover, it seems to me, is one of the most concretely faith-based holidays on the Jewish calendar. While there is always a fair amount of questioning at the Seder, as well there should be, there isn’t much room at the table for questions of basic faith. Where is the fifth child who asks: “Did the Exodus even happen in the first place?”

I read a piece by Rabbi David Wolpe a few years ago in which he addressed the historical accuracy/inaccuracy of the Exodus. At the end of the article, he concluded that it didn’t matter whether the events of the Exodus actually happened. Wolpe’s central point was that Passover is a holiday celebrating redemption and survival — it didn’t matter how we survived, but rather that we survived. I took comfort in his message, but not enough to feel like I had made peace with the complexities of the Passover ritual. Even if I sat down to the Seder with Wolpe’s article in my hand, I would still be confronted with statements and assumptions of faith that would prove problematic for me. 

For instance, the Haggadah tells us that God lifted us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and even this statement weighs on my faith. It’s difficult for me to reconcile my personal conception of God with Passover’s conception of God. I don’t believe in a God that can split seas, punish with plagues, or communicate through a burning bush. I don’t want to pray to a God that works within the physical realm in such ostentatious ways. My God is all-powerful yet unassuming, miraculous yet understated. My God doesn’t directly communicate in a language that I can comprehend, but God’s presence is woven throughout my life in ways that I can identify. Part of my difficulty with Seder table language is that it rests upon a foundation of God-talk that I have trouble with. The Seder defines God for me, but I don’t like its definition.

Struggling to understand God and faith are spiritual exercises that the Jewish tradition encourages. We are a nation that thrives on doubting, debating, challenging, and commentating. The beauty in our laws and liturgy is in the constant interpretation (and reinterpretation) that keeps these age-old texts alive. Here are my Four Questions: Is there space to shake up the Seder? Can we open the door for questions of basic faith? During this time of year when we reaffirm and rejoice the most in our peoplehood, can we draw strength from exploring our Jewish insecurities? And finally: can we eat yet?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

U-Hauled and proud.

Let's talk about U-Hauling. 

U-Hauling refers to extreme emotional intimacy, monogamy, and commitment that manifest in some stereotypical lesbian relationships after the couple has only known each other for a short time.

I have officially U-Hauled with HUC.

After only about a month or two (I knew a lot about her from the internet but we met in person once or twice), I packed up my belongings and moved across the Atlantic Ocean to be with her.

I've been running on "U-Haul" Standard Time ever since. My sense of time is completely distorted; these four months feel like an entire year has passed. I am a completely different person now than I was one month ago, let alone four. How has so much changed so quickly? How have my core values, opinions, and goals been shaped this dramatically in less than a year? Has it really only been four months?

U-Hauling is typically used in a derogatory manner, but I'm reclaiming it and reframing it. 

On our first date, HUC asked me about my upbringing, what my personal and professional goals are, and where I want to be in five years.

On our second date, HUC delved into my spiritual self -- my conception of G-d, my connection to prayer, and my struggle reconciling my religion with my sexuality.

On our third date, HUC grilled me about my knowledge, my qualifications, and my potential to grow.

On our fourth date, HUC told me where I would be in five years: living with her in New York City, and spending the rest of my life with her.

I chose El Al over U-Haul, but the phenomenon is the same. It might sound crazy, but this is the most beautiful relationship I've ever been in.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hazzanut is not a dirty word.

What does Jewish music sound like? To some, it sounds like Debbie Friedman's Mi Shebeirach. To others, it sounds like Hava Nagila. To me, it sounds like Adolph Katchko's Unetaneh Tokef. 

I grew up listening to Cantor Jacob Ben-Zion Mendelson chanting hazzanut on Shabbat and the High Holy Days, and was incredibly spoiled by the experience. Cantor Mendelson is more than just the cantor who made me want to be a cantor. He's a master of interpreting hazzanut, and a world-renowned expert on the subject. For the past eleven years, he has instilled in me a love of, an education in, and an appreciation for hazzanut that propelled me full speed ahead towards a career in the cantorate. 

I don't just want to be a cantor; I want to continue the tradition and interpretation that was gifted to me all those years ago in Cantor Mendelson's study. I want to keep hazzanut alive, and I want to keep it relevant.

There is something about hazzanut that speaks to me, both when I listen to it and when I sing it. As I begin my cantorial studies, I am increasing my fluency in the language that helps me put these "musical feelings" into technical terms: scales, modes, sequences, motifs. But look past the flat seconds and raised sevenths and there is a primordial musical sob emanating from somewhere between the lines of the staff. That is what makes hazzanut so beautiful to me -- that moment when the soul speaks in song.

But that's just me.

To many people, hazzanut is a complete turn-off. Its performative style sometimes renders it completely inaccessible. Some people feel they connect only when they can sing along, and a simpler melody invites participation much more effectively. Plus, some cantorial recitatives can be quite lengthy and can leave people itching for the oneg. 

There is a time and a place for everything, and hazzanut is no exception. Love it or hate it, hazzanut is an integral part of a multi-faceted Jewish musical tradition that continues to expand. Can we find a place for hazzanut in an age of drum circles and campfire singalongs? I believe we can, simply by reframing the function that hazzanut can play in the context of a prayer service. Instead of making hazzanut a performance, why not make hazzanut personal?

There has been a palpable shift within many Jewish communities towards alternative, contemplative, spiritually charged services that can consist of meditations, mantra chants, and even some yoga. These services encourage the worshipper to find sanctity in moments of increased mindfulness. There has been a similarly successful movement towards incorporating niggunim -- wordless melodies -- into services, and even these melodies can take on a more meditative tone.  

I believe that if you strip it down to bare bones, hazzanut has the potential to be a musical tool for transcendence and introspection. Instead of shutting people out from meaningful prayer experiences, hazzanut can usher people into them. In the same way that meditation encourages us to turn our attention inwards, hazzanut can also help us to focus our energies within. And if you can't stand hazzanut, then listening to it is a valuable exercise in tolerating feelings of discomfort -- a skill that many of us might benefit from sharpening.

Hazzanut is a living, breathing Jewish musical history. It is not meant to be shoved into dusty anthologies or preserved in tightly sealed glass jars. If we can learn how to use and appreciate it, hazzanut can enhance and breathe new life into our ever-developing ritual and musical tradition. The challenge is listening to it with a new set of ears.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Falling Slowly

I am in love.

Over the last two months or so, I have fallen head over heels in love with the State of Israel. Our relationship is tumultuous, vulnerable, emotional, volatile, and absolutely beautiful.

I remember sitting in the chilled sanctuary of Temple Israel Center of White Plains, clutching my Siddur Sim Shalom to my chest as I recited the Amidah. "Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol Yisrael, v'imru- Amen". My eyes fell upon the word Yisrael -- Israel -- and my mind wandered across the Atlantic. The Israel scattered throughout the pages of my Siddur was a land of desert heat and weathered cobblestone, pious old men with long beards and large families, droves of young women in long, thick pleated skirts and wrist-length sleeves scurrying across the Kotel plaza. Milk and honey, figs and olives, dates and pomegranates, za'atar and sesame.

But what about me? Where do I fit in? Is there any room for a young, American, socially progressive, Queer, halachically-conscious, music-loving, activist, meditative, pluralistic, sort of yeshivish, guitar-toting, Kosher-style, Reformaconservadox cantorial student with a penchant for Hazzanut and a love of Torah learning?

Each morning I wake up feeling like I've finally come home, but each night I go to sleep feeling like an imposter in a land of complete strangers. But I think it's that tug of war -- knowing exactly where you are but feeling totally lost at the same time -- that makes living in Israel so startlingly life-changing.

Late last night, I arrived home from a two-day study field trip to Northern Israel where we learned about the early Pioneers who built the Jewish homeland from the bottom up, and the visionaries who continue to shape Israeli society through commitment, activism, and awareness. Across the generations, these people are linked by a fierce love of Israel and a passionate devotion to her safety and continued growth.

There may not have been room for these fearless individuals when they first set foot on Israeli soil, but they made room for themselves. They worked and nurtured the land, ensuring that others would have that same opportunity.

They dove in despite the risks, despite the challenges, and despite the ambiguities, grasping only a vision of a reality that they lived and died to achieve.

As the sun was beginning to set over the banks of the Kinneret yesterday, I dove in too.

I waded into the water fully dressed. I didn't have a towel, a change of clothes, or a care in the world. The water was alive; the waves thrashed warm around me, and my toes could barely grasp the swelling, shrinking ground beneath me. The guilty, self-conscious, uncomfortable, scared, not-Jewish-enough, too-Jewish, awkward, uneducated, out of place, inadequate voices in my head were muffled by the water rushing into my ears as I immersed myself in Israel's turbulent embrace.

Israel and I are in a relationship... and it's complicated. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

August already?!

Overworked, overstressed, overheated. Too much sun, too much walking, and too much information (that my tired, fried little brain can't possibly retain). And a fine layer of dust over absolutely everything.

This has been my state of being at the end of each week for the past three weeks or so that we have gone on field trips with our Biblical Archaeology class. This was the last one, and I can honestly say for the first time so far at HUC that I have never been happier to see something end. 

Don't get me wrong: I adore this beautiful country, its landscape, and its history. I have seen exhibits, archaeological dig sites, tunnels, tombs, caves, ruins, inscriptions, columns, city walls, gates, homes, palaces... but after a while, my vision gets blurry. Doors look like gates which look like walls which look like drainage systems because at the end of the day, I just see ancient stacks of stones.

We walk for hours, baking in the sun, listening to our professors tell us sixteen different archaeologists' opinions that all lead to the same conclusion: we can't actually say for certain what it is you're staring at, but we can tell you that it's old. VERY old. 7th, 8th, 9th Century -- that kind of old. We can tell you whether it's Egyptian, Philistine, or Israelite; Calcolithic or Neolithic; Iron or Bronze Age. But beyond that, unless there is an ancient engraving that explicitly states "Here Stood David's Palace", it's really anybody's guess. 

Maybe I'm oversimplifying things; it has been an extremely long week. But I simply don't connect with this course. It raises many interesting questions about the land itself, how we as Jews choose to relate to it, and how to interpret the Bible as an anthropologist might approach a population census. But I struggle with the dates, the facts, the numbers, and the stones that all look alike. I connect more to languages, narratives, anecdotes, interviews, interaction, participation. Maybe this just isn't my thing.

On the bright side, I've spent the last few weeks so immersed in being exactly in my element that I haven't had a free millisecond to blog about it. Hello, again. :-)

When I have the energy and brain power, I will write about some of the incredible things I've had the opportunity to do over the last few weeks, but here's a preliminary top ten list:

1. Beautiful, musical Shabbat services at Naha Tehila
2. HUC Beit Cafe (open mic night)
3. High Holy Day choir rehearsals 
4. Shabbat dinner with old friends from Yeshivat Hadar
5. Shiur and discussion with the editor of the Women's Commentary on the Torah
6. Reunited with an AJU friend who's currently serving in the IDF
7. New York themed get together with the HUC NY campus students
8. Taught a mini shiur (entirely in Hebrew!) about the history of Jewish music 
9. Prayed with Women of the Wall at the Kotel for Rosh Hodesh Elul
10. Went to the shuk on Friday afternoon and lived to talk about it!

Shabbat this week is just what the doctor ordered... I can't wait to welcome her in tomorrow night. Shabbat Shalom to any and all who read this! 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Holy Ground

Today we took our first Biblical Archaeology field trip to survey some of the topographical and archaeological features of Jerusalem's immediate surroundings. I have taken tours of the landscape before, but this time I was looking through a different lens -- a more focused one, but also a much foggier one. Before I talk about the trip itself, I need to give you some context.

Our first class lecture divided Biblical scholars into two main groups: those who viewed the Bible as History, and those who viewed the Bible as Spiritual Literature. The interplay between these two schools of thought plays an integral role in determining how one approaches the study of Biblical Archaeology, which is a fascinating discussion in and of itself. But what really stopped me in my tracks was our professor's definition of the Bible:

"A multi-vocal literary creation, produced by a variety of authors and editors over many years and containing varying and even contradictory views, beliefs and language."

I'm still ruminating over the implications of this statement. I'm still mulling over the impact of presenting this definition of the Bible to the newest generation of Jewish educators, Rabbis, and Cantors. But that's a blog post for another day.

As we boarded the bus, I wondered where exactly we were heading. I knew the bus was taking us to the three locations listed on our syllabus -- Nebi Samuel, Ramat Rachel, and the Haas Promenade -- but I was caught up in bigger questions: how holy is this holy ground? To what extent do I believe that our ancestors traversed these same trails? And even as archaeological evidence proves or disproves the Biblical narrative, how do I navigate when I am caught between faith and fact?

Nebi Samuel

Inside this mosque, which used to be a church, is an underground chamber in which a small synagogue is located which contains the tomb of the Biblical prophet Samuel.

...I know. It's a mouthful. 

Riddled with bulletholes from World War 1, this mosque/synagogue/former church sits atop a hill overlooking Jerusalem. To get there, our tour bus drove outside of Jerusalem's '67 borders and into settlements and villages that were annexed two weeks after the war. When I think of settlements, I usually imagine ramshackle, temporary structures scattered across rural hills or valleys. But we drove through areas heavily populated with young religious families, apartment complexes stacked one on top of the other, shopping malls and office buildings flanking the busy streets.

The Olive Columns, an environmental art structure at the entrance to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel.

Panorama view of East Jerusalem from the hilltops of Ramat Rachel

Our next stop was Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, which contains within it some notable archaeological findings. We explored the ruins of the Biblical fortress Beit HaKerem, where warning signals were sent to Jerusalem at the end of the First Temple period. We also had a beautiful vantage point from which we viewed all of East Jerusalem, and got a clearer sense of which areas were populated by Arabs and by Jews.

Panorama view of Jerusalem from the Haas Promenade

Our final stop was the Haas Promenade, which was a familiar sight for many of us who came here during our orientation last week. This time, however, we were able to identify some of the clear signs of Israeli or Palestinian villages, such as different colored water towers or roofs. The promenade also provides some of the most beautiful views of the entire city of Jerusalem, and it was a gorgeous way to finish up our tiyul.

So now what?

My head is swimming with new information and new questions. Did this really happen here? Is this person really buried there? And is this land -- the land I will now inhabit for the next year of my life -- really the land of Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah? And as Rabbi David Wolpe might further challenge: does any of that even matter in the first place?

As I conclude my first full week of classes here at HUC, I have many more questions than answers. It seems that the more I learn, the less I know. I remember writing in my admissions essay that the defining moment for me when deciding whether to enter the clergy was recognizing that Rabbis and Cantors and Educators will never have all the answers. We will, however, have ALL THE QUESTIONS. Maybe this will be my new normal. But for now, it feels good. It feels... Jewish. And it feels right.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


I was originally going to write a post about the last few days of Orientation, because there has been so much packed into the last week of my life that it seemed easy to fill up a post with it. Then, Shabbat happened.

The other night, a classmate and I were discussing everything under the sun when our conversation turned to "shop talk": questions of doubt and faith, struggles with prayer and with G-d. We embraced in each other that we had similar doubts, similar questions, and similar theories about the roles of prayer and religion, and the ways in which they function in our lives. It was a validating conversation, and one that made me feel safe in the knowledge that we don't necessarily need to have everything figured out. After a week of thought-provoking and mildly terrifying discussions about the enormity of our career paths, that conversation put me in a place where I could enter Shabbat feeling confident and safe, even amidst crises of faith and identity.  

I have never needed Shabbat more than I did at the end of this week. After long days of programming, tours, lectures, discussions, ice breakers, outings, and placement tests, we all needed Shabbat. Shabbat in Jerusalem is remarkable in and of itself; watching an entire city shut down at the sound of a siren is chilling. In the past, though, the separation between Shabbat and the rest of the week didn't seem as distinct. This time, Shabbat was palpable. I could feel the energy of our entire group shift as the sun began to set.

We had text study and services outside in a garden on HUC's campus. When we were given the opportunity to find our own space to pray silently, I walked to a ledge overlooking the city. My surroundings were my prayer book. I prayed with eyes intermittently opened and closed, not sure whether to turn inward or look outward because both practices were intensely meaningful. There was something about being in Israel, in Jerusalem, and on the HUC campus that made me feel safer and more open than I ever had. 

Dinner was outside in the courtyard, and it was delicious. But it was entirely eclipsed by what happened afterwards: the singing. The HUC pre-Ulpan group led a song session after dinner, and it was one of the best experiences I've had in Israel thus far. In our little corner of our table, three or four cantorial students sat close together, singing and smiling and holding hands and harmonizing. I hadn't felt that much joy since Hava Nashira. But it was different this time, because as I looked around the table I came to the realization that these beautiful souls would be singing with me for the next five years. I felt so happy and lucky to be among people who are as lit up by Jewish music as I am. Despite the stress and the nerves, I know I am in good company this year.

I was still riding the high of the song session when a group of us decided to walk from HUC to the Kotel to pray. I had never gone to the Kotel so late at night on Shabbat before, and of the three times I've visited the Kotel over the last two weeks, last night was the most remarkable. Though I have been there many times throughout my life, last night was the first time ever that I felt dizzy approaching the stones. The closer I got to the wall, the harder it was to breathe. That feeling of being small and overwhelmed is the feeling I try to internalize whenever I recite "Adonai S'fatai Tiftach" before the Amidah. But I had never truly felt it before last night.

I pressed my forehead against the wall and closed my eyes. I had approached the wall with my own prayers in mind, but as soon as my fingers touched the Jerusalem stone I immediately felt the prayers and the energies of the millions of people and generations whose hands and foreheads and tears and lips had touched that same stone. My prayer was no longer about me. It was about a collective strength, a collective peace, a collective healing. It was a prayer experience I will never forget.

As clergy we have many daunting responsibilities, one of which is to be an effective vehicle for the prayers of the congregations we lead and represent. Last night gave me a taste of what it truly means to carry the prayers of others on one's back. As I walked backwards, inching away from the wall, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and resolution come over me. I hadn't said a word of what I had planned to, but that didn't matter to me anymore.

Shabbat Shalom u'mevorach l'kulam.