Friday, September 10, 2010

Rosh Hashana - Day 2

(I'm suggesting you begin reading this series on the 2010 Rosh Hashana Cleanse with Part (-2) and go in order. It'll make more sense. Enjoy.)
Next thing you know it's morning. I lie there with the gray light creeping in through the blinds and remember that last night I'd totally forgotten I wanted to pray every night before I go to bed. I dwell on my first day of fasting: Cereal, pretzel, burrito and pot. I think I get an F.

Still, I feel good this morning - except I've still got a chalky mouth. Weird. I brush my teeth. C'mon, Tom's of Maine. Don't let me down! But it makes it worse. I'm actually troubled now. What's wrong with me? I'm not being hard on myself. I think there's something actually wrong with me. And I still have to read from the Torah again this morning.

I start the day with a banana because I didn't have time to juice it into a smoothie and I need some confident calories because we're doing a hike before the service. I need energy to get through that as well as the reading. I figure I'd just put it in the blender anyway for a smoothie. It's still the same content, just a little less mushed. I'm getting closer to starting this fast for real.

And once I've showered and thrown on my whites, I bust over to Temescal Canyon where we're doing the hike which is led by Andy Lipkis, founder of Tree People.

Yesterday, Rabbi Levy gave a sermon that focused on finding your divine life mission this High Holiday season. She said the place to look for it, is in the spot God has given you the greatest obstacles to overcome. She then gave the example of this animal preservationist she'd heard about on NPR who had a severe stutter. I'd heard the program she was talking about when it first aired a while back. Alan Rabinowitz was interviewed by host Krista Tippet on her show “Speaking of Faith” (just retitled "on Being" this month). I'd been introduced to the program by my ex, a spiritual Christian Scientist who was deeply devoted in a way that made me never feel spiritual or pure enough. Though I finally realized her devotion was rooted in countering her own even more deeply held existential fears of which I only saw a glimpse of once in the entire two years of intimacy.

Dr. Rabinowitz grew up in the 50s with a severe stutter. He was so ashamed of it, he barely spoke to another human being 'til he was 19. They didn't know what to do with him back then and his reluctance to speak made them think he might be mentally retarded. In fact, he was a whiz, but like many with a stutter, the only times he could mouth his words without getting stuck was while singing or talking to animals. Unblessed with anything resembling a fine vocal instrument, he monologued at his little beasts… in his closet. You see he grew up in Manhattan and they didn't have so much as a dog. So he'd come home from school in tears every day, run into his closet and talk with his pet turtle until dinner time. Granted it was a one-sided conversation, but at least he was talking. No one even knew about this 'til he was almost 20.

One of the few times he was happy was when his father took him to the zoo and he saw the big cats - the lions, panthers and cougars. He saw in their eyes exactly what he was feeling. He knew they were powerful, grand, creatures, trapped and baffled as to how to escape.

Once he saw that, he realized his mission. He got degrees in zoology and then began doing things that no other naturalist would dare do. He'd go deep into the jungles, risking life and limb to track and save the Big Cats worldwide. He's now known as the “Indiana Jones of Wildlife Protection and he has single-handedly, through his unwavering devotion, he's convinced unstable governments, despots and dictators, to turn over millions of square miles to him and his organization to maintain and protect sanctuaries for Big Cats from Berma to Belize. Here's a NYT article about him.

And all because he overcame his greatest obstacle and thereby found his divine life mission. What was my greatest obstacle? No idea. I'd have a whole hour-long walk to think about it.

Andy Lipkis who led the walk this morning had a great divine life mission clearly outlined and he'd known it since age 15. Over 30 years ago. As Andy told me the story a while back, he was at camp and someone was going to cut down a bunch of trees to build a parking lot. It was the early 70s and he was so incensed that he wrote a letter to the editor, then started a petition and eventually got the parking lot construction halted. It became a “kid does good” story in the LA Times. The mayor came out to support him. Adults founded a not-for-profit around him and he ran it even while he got degrees in environmental studies. He got more and more funding. He asked to care for and reseed a chunk of land in LA, up along Coldwater Canyon and Mulholland. The city gave him hundreds of acres. Right in the middle of Los Angeles. Over time, they gave him thousands of acres.

TreePeople has now planted over a million trees in Los Angeles and they're in the thick of a campaign to plant another million trees. After the Griffith Park fires two years ago, the first person The Mayor called was Andy. The Mayor asked him what he should do and Andy came up with a plan to rehabilitate the scorched earth so it would grow back even stronger than before.

Andy told us of his newest obsession. Capturing lost rainwater in cisterns. He described how the tree's roots create a natural water filter for rainwater before it goes into our natural water table. But when trees are cut down, the water skims away, down and down until it reaches the ocean - lost for human use. He wants to create thousands of water tanks all over the county to capture the rainfall. We lose millions gallons to the sea for every inch of rain. And if we could capture just a fraction of that, Los Angeles wouldn't have to import water from thousands of miles away at great expense to our wallets and the environment from which we're stealing water in northern California and Oregon. He was now in talks with major companies and government figures to make this happen. He was single handedly trying to solve the ongoing water crisis in southern California. Andy Lipkis is the green Mulholland of the 21st century and someday they'll have streets named after him. All because he knows his divine life mission. He didn't have to go through any spiritual cleanse to find it. He didn't so much as pray to God. He saw them trying to turn part of his camp into a parking lot and he said, “NO.” But his unwavering commitment has made the world conform to his vision. Slowly, some might say. But in other ways, remarkably quickly.

This was the guy leading our little hike. It was more than just a hike though. It was an hour-long silent meditation - a perfect way to prepare yourself for a few hours of prayer. The section we were reading in the Torah (Genesis 22:1-24) actually inspired Nomi to hold the 2nd day services outdoors to begin with. It's the old story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But he doesn't do this in his backyard. Nope. He goes on a hike, up a mountain. And there, in the silence, surrounded by nature alone, does Abraham raise his knife to strike his only remaining son given to him at the age of 100.

So to get a taste of where Abraham was - and how close he was to The Lord as well as the angels who swooped down to save young Isaac - we held our service in a cleared field while the rest of Jewry that day fought to get highly sought after seats in which they would sweat in their fancy suits, under the roofs of well-endowed temples.

It was a good hike and we got to the clearing early where they'd put out chairs for the service. I went off to find a quiet spot to practice my portion. I've learned only too well in the theatre that second night blues can be treacherous. Just when you think you're set because the opening went well, your second night you're not as focused and mistakes flourish in that environment. Once again the woman who organizes the readers panicked that I wasn't there and hadn't realized I was reading the same section two days in a row. I reassured her and we started up. I found a seat next to my cousin who introduced me to Rabbi Levy 14 years earlier and was able to enjoy this somewhat truncated service in the woods.

When I got up to read, I was told they couldn't find the yad (pointer) so the rabbi handed me twig. I smiled. While the day before I was singing in a grand space. sixty foot high ceilings and white walls peppered with stained glass, today I had trees, sun and a clear blue sky. So blue and clear it reminded me of 9/11. And this was 9/10. The 9th anniversary was the following day. Speaking of which, Channel 11 local news was there and they shot our ceremony and even interviewed a few of us. I couldn't believe they asked me what I thought of the pastor who wanted to burn the Koran. I said his position was, “Untenable.” The broadcaster clearly didn't know what the word meant and he asked someone else for a reaction. He then asked them what thoughts they had on September 11. He wrapped up before coming back to me, because I had a good answer for that one. I'd have said, “What I'm thinking of is that, it was that no one ever covered the smell. I don't mean whether it was toxic and people got ill. I just mean, I woke every morning for months and I could smell the death and destruction as far away as 85th St. And you could smell it that day. That beautiful day. Clear blue sky. Perfect temperature. Just like today.” But he never asked.

But before I got interviewed, I had to read Torah. And while the day before 300 people were crammed in a deep alley stretching far away, today 100 people crowded around me. For this more informal gathering, instead of having aliyahs reserved for VIPs, Nomi announces, “Anyone who's had a major accomplishment this year, come on up.” Twenty people then stand to one side of the torah and chant the blessing before reading the torah together. The category of people just before I read was something like “Anyone who wants to have blessings in the new year,” come on up. So basically everyone got up and stood around me as Nomi announced, “And now David will read with his beautiful voice.” No pressure.

I took my twig and it happened again, the world disappeared and my voice soared. I charged through the piece a little quicker and less indulgent than the day before, but I still needed a nudge at the beginning of the same sentence.

Here's a video my cousin took:

I don't remember the sermon that day. Some go right to your heart and others go right through you and honestly, I hadn't addressed the one from the day before. I didn't know what my divine life mission was and I was disturbed to be around people like Andy Lipkis, who's a real mensch and a friend, but whose very presence brought into such stark relief what you could accomplish with that profound clarity. Sure I created Raw Impressions, Inc. which was an extraordinary thing. I just don't think it was my divine life mission. It was a bizarre obsession that came out of 9/11 and an attempt to avoid the fact that my artistic career wasn't taking flight. Instead, just think what I could have done by now if I had Andy's self-knowledge and such a clearly defined channel in which to pour all my energies. What if all I wanted to do was save trees?

* * *

When I got home from temple, I didn't know what to do. I juice some carrots. I guess I'll really start this juice cleanse. I've had nothing to eat all day but that banana. Yesterday may have been a false start, but I can do this.

Yet, I suffer a quiet malaise. I'm done with my temple duties for all high holidays. And I did well with them. But now, I'm done. Nothing more to study or worry about. My girlfriend's gone. And I'm not allowed to do work. So I do laundry. That's not work. That's a luxury. And part of my spiritual cleanse. Doing two loads of laundry and cleaning my room let's me physically breath easier. I decide to continue that trend and go to yoga after sundown. It starts with a meditation and turns out to be a good, vigorous, but gentle class and a great end to the day. Not to mention it keeps me on target for my goal of going to yoga 20 times in 30 days. Just another part of my spiritual cleanse that will take the whole month of September, and run concurrently with my juice fast.

When I get home, I feel quiet, but a friend I haven't seen in months calls me to go out for a spontaneous drink. I don't really want to go, but it'll be months before I see her again with her schedule. And I decide I'm not going to drink. Or eat. It's actually easier to do that in front of someone else. I have an audience to my sacrifice. I'd gotten high and wolfed a burrito the night before, but I was unwatched - my piety and suffering would have gone unnoticed, so I didn't bother. And I have to admit, the public nature of my endeavors is a motivating factor. So I agree to meet her and pose as the ascetic. In truth, I also just didn't have the money to eat out. My last two unemployment checks haven't arrived and I was getting concerned that my status with the unemployment agency was in peril.

So I sit with her at the bar of the classy and spare Rustic Canyon as I watch her eat gourmet bread and olives with her gnocchi. She washes it all back with two glasses of Malbec. It's painful, but I enjoy parading around my willpower. And I'm definitely glad I don't have to keep pace and pay for an equal share of all that. I later calculate for the entire month, I've spent $90 going out for food for the entire month. This would have added another 50% to that total and I just can't do that.

My friend finishes her gnocchi and I'm ready to bolt. I didn't have enough juice today and I'm feeling a little woozy. Just as I think we're done, she orders a desert. Hand-crafted, salted caramel ice cream. I want to excuse myself, but feel it would be rude to abandon her at the bar by herself. That was probably stupid, if I'd left, maybe she'd have met the man of her dreams instead of felt sad and lonely. I always expect the worst and put pressure on myself to somehow be the responsible one, when in fact, I may be hindering the normal flow of the universe, with my unreasonable upstanding behavior.

So I finally leave, much later than I'd like, tired and hungry.

I go home and get my laundry out of the drier, but have no energy to fold or even re-make my bed, so without prayer, drugs, porn or food, I fall on the bedspread, throw the comforter over me, plunk my face in an uncased pillow and go out like a light.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rosh Hashana - Day 1

(I'm suggesting you begin reading this series on the 2010 Rosh Hashana Cleanse with Part (-2) and go in order. It'll make more sense. Enjoy.)
I woke a little after 8am and immediately started practicing my Torah portion. I'm in OK shape, but not great. I should have started learning my portion a week earlier. What's new? You see, it's one thing to read my marked up text. It's something totally different to read from the Torah -bereft not only of my homespun musical markings, but also all signs of vowels. This means I really have to know the words I'm saying. Because in the Torah that last sentence would be like reading:
“Ths mns I rlly hv t knw th wrds 'm syng.” A far cry from:
“This means I really have to know the words I'm saying.”
It's doable, but not easy. And it's possible mostly because I know English. If you gave me the same thing in French I'd be lost, even though I'd be able to pronounce it when you showed me the full text.

So, I essentially have to have it mostly memorized.

OK. I need to head off to read from the Torah, but my mouth is feeling chalky. Probably nerves. I don't think it's the food from last night.

Last night I had a 'festive meal' with a friend and his family. I was very happy to have been invited along at the last minute. I'd been complaining to my girlfriend during the day that I didn't have any meal to go to that night and I might end up going to temple, but really what I wanted was a family experience. And while I throw all these Shabbats and festive Jewish events, I wish someone invited me to theirs, but I didn't know who to ask or how. So getting an invite mid-afternoon was something like a Godsend, literally. All I had to do was bring a bottle of wine. Dinner was homemade challah (not mine), apples and honey, brisket, roast chicken, vegetables and a glass of red wine. All delicious. I didn't gorge myself. In fact, I could have eaten twice as much, but wanted to get used to eating less as my calorie intake is about to plummet.

This morning to be sure I evacuate my system before I performed, I just had a final half bowl of cereal which worked great. Then I brushed my teeth, but it didn't get rid of that chalky taste in my mouth.

On to temple!

* * *

I went to services, but forgot to bring mints. Really regretted that. My mouth is drier than after a bad hangover. Something is physiologically wrong with me, but I don't feel ill in any capacity.

I spent so much time practicing my portion, I arrived an hour late - just as they were parading the Torahs around the sanctuary. My girlfriend who's not Jewish, met me there. She'd very open to learning about what I'm interested in and she's been to two services at Nashuva and one Shabbat dinner at my place. This will be her first high holidays. I'm fine having her with me for Rosh Hashana, but I'm not sure about her coming to Yom Kippur. That's some intense shit - especially for someone who doesn't necessarily believe it. For someone who's there for me. Anyway, she lives 45 minutes East of San Diego and there was bad traffic this morning so it took her about 3-1/2 hours. Amazingly, I arrived about a minute after she did. I gave her a big hug, we ran to the bathroom and then went inside. I found her a seat and then someone found me and told me they were afraid I wasn't going to show, so I checked in with the woman who's organized all the Torah readers. But since I was reading from the Torah, I had to sit on the bima (pulpit) and she sat by herself in a SRO crowd. She's lucky she got a seat at all. I was concerned about her sitting there by herself experiencing something quite alien, especially since she didn't know anyone there. Remarkably, she happened to sit next to my old roommate from earlier this year. She didn't know this however until after the Torah readings when I came to join her.

Six readers went before me. Most got through their passages without stumbling too much. But most were also quiet and, um…less than tuneful? Then they switched out the Torahs. To do this, one person lifts up the first Torah from handles on the bottle of the scrolls. Anytime the Torah is raised up, everyone must stand. That's the kind of reverence we place on the text. The person holding the Torah then turns around so the text is facing the crowd so everyone can see, it's a real Torah. Everyone sings thanking God for having given us the Torah and then the roll up the scroll tight, put a cloth band around the scrolls and dress them in kingly “clothes”. Then they roll out the second Torah (with less pomp and circumstance, though it had been paraded around with the first one before any of the readings began.)

The rabbi's parents had the aliyah before my reading. “Aliyah” literally means “going up” and refers to going up on the bima - the pulpit where the Torah is laid out to be read from. It's an honor given to people who've done things for the temple over the course of the year. They then read the blessing before and after the Torah potion - for every portion. So it becomes very ritualized with all the repetition.

When they were done with the blessing before the Torah reading, I stepped forward to the text. And I pick up the 'yad', a little silver pointer the length of a pen that usually has a figure of a hand with it's index finger pointed out. You're never allowed to touch a Torah with your fingers. This keeps it pristine. Because of this, there are Torah scrolls around the world that are centuries old. And some actually over 2000 years old. This second Torah is set to just my little passage. And I was the only one reading from it. After I went, we'd be done with the Torah reading for the day. I was reading clean up. No pressure.

It's hard to describe the terror of reading from the Torah if you've never done it. There are a slew of reasons for this. First, if you've been bar/bat mitzvahed, you probably have a memory of the 9 months of preparation you put into learning a portion for the first time. You're 12 or 13 and usually you learn from your cantor or rabbi. These days I actually know two women a little younger than me who are private Torah tutors who I would have LOVED to have had as my Torah tutors. They're cute, funny, sweet, supportive. I would have had crushes on both and that would have inspired me to practice before each meeting.

As it was I was terrorized by Cantor Sidney Rabinowitz at Temple Beth El. He had a little office with no window, stuffed with scores and books along every square inch of wall. He wasn't as ancient as our rabbi, but he was still intimidating. Nothing less than perfect was acceptable. You'd arrive early, because if you were late there would be hell to pay. And you waited outside the door cramming because you hadn't studied all week long. You'd very faintly hear chanting through in the other room, but it was well insulated, so just barely you could hear the Hazzan correcting the student when he tore off the portion the way it was supposed to be done in his piecing tenor.

Part of why the insulation was so good was because it was a secret door. The door was wood paneled, completely uniform with the rest of the wall and without a knob. There was a keyhole and I guess you pulled the thing open with the key. I've never seen another door like it. Then when that door opened, a red-cheeked, weeping kid would tumble out - leaving the entrance open behind them. You'd tip-toe in to find the Hazzan behind his desk, waiting for his next victim. Then you'd have to prove you'd done your homework and chant the section you'd been working on for the last few minutes.

I was lucky. I could sing a little at age 12. I had a good ear and I picked things up quickly. I learned tropes without even thinking about it, which I've since forgotten, but have stayed in my ear which has helped me learn new parts now with greater ease that otherwise. But I was still reading Hebrew which was a totally foreign language to me. We were taught to read the letters in Hebrew school, but we had no idea what we were saying. All I knew was “Adonai” and “Yihiye” were words for “God”. “Elohaynu” was “Lord”. “Aba” and “Ima” were “father” and “mother”. And that's about it.

Somehow I learned my portion for my bar mitzvah, but I've rarely been so scared studying anything in my life. Now, 25 years later, I had no one to study with. My rabbi was too busy to meet with anyone and while I'd used one of those cute Torah coaches to help me 3 years ago when I read from the Torah then, I didn't have time to meet up with them this time. I really only studied the portion for about 6 days, which REALLY isn't enough time for my learning speed.

So I step up to the table where the Torah is laid out and I look at the column which I'm reading from. Each Torah is hand written in a sacred calligraphy. It's shockingly beautiful and it draws you in. I find the first word and see if I can read the calligraphy. Depending on the scribe, some Torahs are easier to read than others. I can read this one. The scribe wasn't too fancy. I thank God. I read in my head the first line. I can do this. I finger the yad. It's a skinny one. Very light. I wished it had a bit more heft to it. The table is very low so I either have to bend over to see the words better, or stand straight and look at it from some distance. I opt to stand straight so I'll sing better. I'm taking a really long time to prepare myself. I feel people staring. I look out to see 300 pairs of eyes looking at nothing but me on the first and holiest day of the year. I see Meg caught half behind a pillar. We connect eyes and give her a little smile. My mouth is as chalky as it's ever been in my life. Doesn't matter. What matter is the first word. The first phrase. If I “go up” on a line, there are two Gabis reading along with me. They stand on either side of me, making sure I say every word correctly. They read from fully notated texts. I'm the only one reading from the Torah. If I screw up a word, they'll say it out loud to me correctly, and I'll have to say it again. Which frankly will really screw up the making it sound beautiful for God part of the sacrifice. It'll also totally screw up my rhythm and I can get through a full phrase in one breath more easily than going back and stopping and starting. So I have to get every word right the first time.

I've got a solid stance. The rabbi tilts the mic closer to me. I can't delay any more. I take a deep breath and let loose.

My voice hits a sweet spot at the end of the first phrase. The range of the music is only one octave and I only sing up to a D, but it's early, so a D feels full and high and strong. I linger on it. I fill it with vibrato and then descend in a simple but satisfying figure. This Torah portion is mine. I've got it. The second phrase has two more spots where I get to pull a near fermata on those 'high' notes

I take a deep break after each verse, looking to the word starting the next sentence. In the Torah, however, they don't use commas or periods, so it all just blends together, unless you know where the punctuation goes. And I do. I always get stuck on the starting note of verse number 4, but with a short pause, and a Gabi whispering to me the pronunciation of the word, I push through. It's going well. I get to the last verse and I know I have it made. I'm singing it out like a clarion call. My voice is a shofar. The church is silent besides my voice and I'm cutting through the air with clean slices of beautiful lines of melody. This is not chanting. I am making it my own damn aria. I hold out the last note and end with a dramatic cut off.

“Yasher Koach!” A few from congregation call out. I smile and step back from the Torah. They've shouted out The Hebrew for “Congratulations. Good job.” Literally it means “May your strength be firm.” I'd say it was.

Meg later told me a guy sitting behind her said out loud to no one, “Now THAT'S how you read a Torah!” That made her smile. Her boy did good.

I'd completely forgotten about my chalky mouth while reading, but it came right back as soon as I was done. While reading it was just me and the Torah. No one else existed in my world. Time was long and short simultaneously. I love when the rest of the world disappears. It only happens when I am taxing myself to the edge of my abilities. And since I stopped performing 6 years ago, that doesn't happen very often. It's a high of clear focus that is unsurpassed in my experience. And I immediately know I need more of it the moment I get to taste it again. It's a strong addiction.

* * *

I sit back and enjoy the rest of the services and we head home around 2pm. I decide Rosh Hashana is a festive day as it's New Year's and I shouldn't starve myself. Everyone else is eating apple and honey. Why am I thinking I should be fasting? So I stop and get some yeast and make a challah when I get back. So it's healthier, I made it partially whole wheat (2 cups WW and 4 cups white flour). I knead the dough quite well and give it two short risings, in hopes to bake it before the next service. But I don't have time to let it rise on the cookie sheet and bake it before we have to go to the Taschlich service on the beach at 4:30pm.

Amazingly, Taschlich is three blocks from my apartment. So Meg and I walk over barefoot all in white. This is the service where we head to the water's edge to throw away our sins in the symbolic form of a crust of bread. Back two thousand years ago, the rabbi would take the sins of the community and place them on the head of a goat and send it into the wilderness as a sacrifice to Azazel (something like the devil). But these days it's all symbols. We let the ocean take our sins out to sea so we're left free from the wrongs we committed this last year. And now we can start over again. I was so impressed and awed with Meg who took it all VERY seriously. You could see her thinking all her sins on to her crust of bread before she threw it to the Pacific.

After we did that, Nashuva had a drum circle with a few hundred people and I dragged Meg a hundred yards away and told her I wanted to fly a kite. For me it's a great feeling for freedom, childhood and innocence to fly a kite. I pull out a tightly packed stunt kite colors of the rainbow with piano keys and we have it airborne in no time. It's fantastic. It takes Meg (and everyone who ever tries it) a while to get the hang of it because it's so sensitive. But once she's got the knack of it, she looks like a kid in a candy store. The sun is getting low and finally we decide to pack up and head home.

There we find, I didn't think to put the rising dough in the fridge. So the bread which had fully risen fell. It still tasted good after we baked it, but it had a dense texture - almost like cornbread. I have a few pieces with honey and then Meg has to leave to take care of her grandma. She just came up for the day. Almost 7 hours of driving just to spend the day with me in temple. She's more devoted than I deserve.

After she goes I could have some store bought smoothies, but instead I eat two pretzels. I saw them in the store and asked myself, Why am I making myself suffer? I LOVE pretzels - Snyder's Hard Sour Dough, in the brown box - can not be beat.

When Meg left, she mentioned she might grab a burrito on the way home and now I must have one. I walk two blocks to a down and dirty joint and get a bean and cheese burrito, but on the way home I see the entire staff and all the customers at the Green Goddess begin arrested. This is the medicinal herb center where I obtained my license and green goodness. I wonder if it's a sign from God not to refill my herbal supplements as I'm now clean out. I talk with the bouncer at the bar next to the Green Goddess, who tells me they were busted not because of the bud, but because they also began an escort service in the back room. This guy was also saying how The Feds were all over them, when it was clearly the LA Police marked on all the officer's uniforms, so his information may be suspect.

In fact, there are 6 unmarked black vehicles and about a dozen officers in full riot gear. They've got a battering ram and shotguns, marked neon green. They mean business. And the guys they have lined up with their face to the wall are not only the workers at The Green Goddess, but all the customers who happened to be picking up some weed at the time. One woman is explaining to an officer that her boyfriend actually has cancer and could he please un-cuff him?

These “criminals” look like me. Half are in shorts and T-shirts. They are the least threatening group I've ever seen lined up. And the cops are in body armor. They must have bust in while I was waiting for my burrito. It's all just happened and the cops are a little baffled that there's no resistance. I mean what were they expecting. I see the owner of the place at the end of the line. I met him at a friend's birthday party which is why I chose to patronize his shop. He's a clean-cut businessman. Maybe 10 years younger than me. I can't believe they're arresting him and shutting down his business. Too bad. He was a nice guy.

I go home and in honor of the closing of The Green Goddess, I finish my last bit of herb, delight in every bite of my burrito and go to bed a happy man.

My fast is not off to a fast start, but at least I fall right to sleep.



Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reading From The Torah - Part (0)

(I'm suggesting you begin reading this series on the 2010 Rosh Hashana Cleanse with Part (-2) and go in order. It'll make more sense. Enjoy.)
Since I moved back to LA in 2005, I started going to Nashuva: “A Spiritual Community of Prayer in Action” led by Rabbi Naomi Levy. It's like a temple, except we have no organization, no physical space (we meet in a rented church) and we only meet the first Friday of every month as well as High Holy Days. We have a band which is loud and fun, and musically diverse using tunes I'd never heard growing up originating from different Jewish traditions from Uganda through Spain.

There are a very few single people there and almost no one between the ages of 18-40 besides me. Originally we hoped it would grow that way, but it didn't. The few people who're interested in progressive Conservative based Judaism that age mostly went to Ikar another temple, led by a young female rabbi. I was very involved with Nashuva for three years hoping to help it grow like wild, until I realized the rabbi, though inspirational like I'd never encountered, was fearful the temple would take over her life if it became a full time temple. She'd had that happen with her first job and she was now a wife, a mother, a best-selling author and a religious lecture circuit mini-star. Her new book comes out next month. She's been on Oprah. 'Nuff said. And she didn't want to give any of that up, so she can squeeze in one day a month to give to Nashuva. I was seduced in to thinking it would grow because she spoke of wanting to make Nashuva into a worldwide movement. For that you need SOME organization, right? I was going to be the catalyst to making it all happen. But it didn't.

Regardless, through my participation at Nashuva, my spiritual and Judaic practice and interest has grown. I've read from the Torah for the first time since my bar mitzvah. I've learned a little Hebrew. I've gone to Israel a second time. I've done the practical exercises she'd sometimes given us in her sermons which lie somewhere between psychotherapy and the Mindfullness teachings of Jon Kabat-Zinn. I've come to host my own Shabbat dinners and festive Jewish gatherings, inviting Jews and non-Jews into a celebratory evening. And I've sought out Jewishness in other places: Rabbi Greyber's and Steven Klein's Shabbat Dinner/Study, LimmudLA (a 72-hour non-stop Jewish learning weekend), other progressive temples like Ikar and Or ha'Torah, and Jewish Federation.

But when it comes to high holidays, I still return to Nashuva.

Last year, however, I spent them with my mom at her temple in Bethlehem, PA. Because of that, the torah portion I'd read the previous two years on the first day of Rosh Hashana was given to someone else. And now they had dibs. It was a great passage. The first two Torah sections read on the high holy days. It's about Abraham and Sarah and how she asks him to turn Hagar and Ishmael out of their house into the desert with nothing but a skin of water. It is the genesis and ground zero of all conflict between Jews and Muslims. It's some important, meaningful shit. And now someone else was reading I found out. But the woman organizing the Torah readers asked if I'd like to learn a new section. The Maftir. It's the same portion read on Day 1 and Day 2. I was available both days, but it's long. And it's hard to learn Torah. It takes time. Still. When I decided I was going to do this fast I said yes.

It's a boring passage about what you're supposed to do on Rosh Hashana.

Numbers 29: 1-6 (NIV)
Feast of Trumpets
1 " 'On the first day of the seventh month hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. It is a day for you to sound the trumpets. 2 As an aroma pleasing to the LORD, prepare a burnt offering of one young bull, one ram and seven male lambs a year old, all without defect. 3 With the bull prepare a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil; with the ram, two-tenths [ ; 4 and with each of the seven lambs, one-tenth. 5 Include one male goat as a sin offering to make atonement for you. 6 These are in addition to the monthly and daily burnt offerings with their grain offerings and drink offerings as specified. They are offerings made to the LORD by fire-a pleasing aroma.

BO-RING. Animal sacrifices? Stuff Jews stopped doing 2000 years ago? Talk about anachronistic. I'm telling the congregation what we're ordered to do by God in the Torah and then…we don't do it. So why still say it? I struggled with this, as I struggled with the text and with the tune of the chanting. I learned tropes (musical notations for ancient Hebrew in the torah) when I was 12, but I'd forgotten them all. And anyway, High Holiday tropes are different. So I'd be doing it wrong even if I remembered them. Same symbol, different tune attached to it.

So I found an audio recording of some rabbi speeding through the portion and I stopped and started my little MP3 player again and again breaking down the words and making my own little hash mark notation to remind myself how far up and down he went with the tune for each word. You can't notate Hebrew with normal musical notation because it's read Right to Left. You can only put it down phonetically.

So learning it was a time consuming bitch. I contacted a brand new rabbi (as of May) I'd met twice before. She's the young asst. rabbi at Ikar actually (our competitor temple) and asked her if she had any advice on making meaning of the passage. She said think about how much value all those animal sacrifices set a person back 2000 years ago. It was a big deal. I tried that, but wasn't sure what I'd sacrifice. Monetary value? A lot. More than I bet I could afford. I mean, I've been unemployed for 36 of the last 72 months. Not a pretty figure in my bank account.

So I thought, what else can I give? Then I thought, TIME. Time is precious. I'm feeling it more and more as I grow older. And to spend 10 hours practicing a Torah portion for which I get nothing back in return is a sacrifice. It wasn't a perfect comparison, but it was something to start with.

I studied the piece again and again and finally I looked at the last line. The offerings made to the lord should have a pleasing aroma. While I wasn't making an animal sacrifice, I would be singing. Perhaps I could make my singing as sweet as possible. I should note that most reading from the torah is more chanting than singing. Done quickly, barely touching the notes and certainly not sustaining them. Moreover, most people hear Torah read at only two times, High Holy days and a relatives bar/bat mitzvah. On the High Holy days, they're often read by volunteers. Most of whom are not singers. Some of whom are downright hard to listen to. They often stumble through their passage not well practiced. Worse, at bar mitzvahs, people hear the Torah shredded with the voice of a pubescent boy cracking their way to the end as miserably as possible.

Few people hear the Torah read beautifully.

So what if I treated this my portion as a little aria? I could slow it down and hold out the high notes. Make it dramatic and flowing so that my sacrifice gives a sweet aroma to God and people hear the Torah as beautiful for the first time in a long time, or maybe even the first time ever.

It was settled. I had a plan.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What Kind of Cleanse I'm Doing - Part (-1)

(I'm suggesting you begin reading this series on the 2010 Rosh Hashana Cleanse with Part (-2) and go in order. It'll make more sense. Enjoy.)

Now, I've done fasts and cleanses in the past. I fast for 25 hours every Yom Kippur and four times in the last 3 years I've done the Master Cleanser “Lemonade Diet” - usually for 8-10 days. I strangely enjoy them. Perhaps it's the masochist in me, but I get some great things out of them. Yes, part of me wants to lose weight, but I rarely do. While there's some discomfort at first, I don't have those hours after a meal where I feel bloated, tired and without motivation. I hope it'll be less expensive than my regular diet (it is but not by a lot, if I'm eating at home normally). I would like to think I'm cleaning out some toxins, though all my doctor and scientist friends say there is no basis medically for that argument. I do think I'm giving my internal organs a little 'rest' which is good. And I don't always eat food that's good for me. And I do think I generally over-eat (like most Americans).

But one thing I know for sure…

Normally, I am rarely conscious in my eating. Not only do I graze on things I don't need. But I have come to eat for comfort, more than I ever have. I'll binge when I get stoned, because it's so damned pleasurable. And I'll eat while doing other things. And the one thing I know fasts and cleanses do, is to make me conscious of what and how I eat when I return to food again.

So I thought maybe this year I'll fast not just on the day of Gedalia and Yom Kippur, but I'll cleanse myself the entire 10-day period from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur.

Now I did a Master Cleanser as recently as June this year, just three months ago, so I thought I'd try a different cleanse, but I didn't find anything that turned me on and I'm suspicious of the cleanses that require you to buy expensive supplements. However crazy The Master Cleanser is. The guy who designed it, basically gave it away. He motives were directly spiritual, not material. And I've got a lot of respect for that.

But this time I'm just going to improvise it all:

Here is the nutritional component to my cleansing.

I've bought this all the day before Rosh Hashana.

By the time I finish my fast, I will have consumed (in juice form):
20 pounds of apples
15 pounds of carrots
7 bananas
5 (32 oz.) bottled smoothies (Naked Juice and Boathouse)most of which are 1/3 apple juice and contain 1 banana.
5 pounds of grapefruit
3 pounds of strawberries
3 stalks of celery
1 gallon of orange juice
1 liter of pomegranate juice


Monday, September 6, 2010

My Spiritual Cleanse - 2010/5771 - Part (-2)

My Spiritual Cleanse - 2010/5771

I've decided to do a spiritual cleanse this High Holy Day season. The period between Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur is traditionally a time to clean up your life before atoning for all your sins. Once you're immaculate you ask that God to write you in the 'Book of Life' for another year and hope you're clean enough that He says “Yeah. We can do that.”

The High Holy Days are literally about life and death. That's some heavy shit to lay on a little mind while growing up as I experienced as a child, but as I turn 40 in just a few weeks (October 22, 2010), life's bigger questions are staring me squarely in the face. Questions of family, job, career, finance, relationships, happiness, health, marriage, children and more.

This IS a test. And currently, I'm not scoring too well. This year, I've gotten into bigger fights with my family than I ever have in my life. I'm unemployed with no prospects for a job. Despite having just finished my first manuscript for a book, my career feels stuck/in it's infancy/still born. My bank account is lower than it's ever been. I'm sometimes happy, but often frustrated at my lack of success in things I've articulated as goals - especially for the last 6 years. I'm not married or have children (those are two big goals). And I'm in another (semi) long-distance relationship with a wonderful girl who I see on what feels like a regular series of lovely mini-vacations. So, if you're calculating my score at home, I get a nearly failing grade in many of those subjects which are the core courses at the School of Life.

That assessment alone would give me pause enough to take stock in some big way this year. But there's more. This year, I went on three dates with a girl who tried to kill herself and blamed me. I got into a contentious fight with a rabbi over a bill before the Israeli Knesset around issues of conversion, such that I'm not currently speaking with him. And lastly, this year I've had the worst series of dates and sex in my life (both as infrequent as bad) over the course of the year before meeting Meg.

If that wasn't enough, this was the kicker. I had a near death experience a month ago.

Now, let me explain. It wasn't a real near death experience, but I thought it was.

Just a few weeks ago, I was lying in bed, trying to fall asleep. And just at that moment when you feel yourself beginning to physically fall, as though your head is bending back into the mattress, a thought took a hold of me as clear as day in its truth.

“I am not going to wake up.”

So I fought to stay awake. My eyes were already closed. The lights were out. My roommate was not home. It was 2AM and I knew if I fell asleep that would be it. I would be done. Dead. Gone. Disappeared into Nothing.

And I did not want to die. I panicked and fought to stay awake the way a drowning man who can't swim fights to reach the surface. It felt physical though I don't think I moved more than a twitch. But I couldn't surmount the pressures of the sea of sleep and in the throes of mental horror I was taken down. It may have been the most terrifying experience of my life.

I woke the next morning. Amazed and relieved. But I had no idea what to do about this. Or with this. I'd never experienced anything like it. I've had anxiety, where I've had trouble getting to sleep. I've had depression that's kept me immobile, inactive and paralyzed under my sheets during daylight hours for days. I'd even recently experienced panic attacks at my job. But this was radically different. And I didn't tell anyone. I didn't know if other people went through this at some time as well, if this was a rite of passage as you near 40, or if this was deeply abnormal. I didn't know if it was a sign, if it was an indication that something was going on in my life, or if it was just the weed.

That brings me to another issue. For many years now, I have not known how to put myself to bed. My parents did that for me when I was a child. Once I hit puberty I began a ritual, indulging in a nightly fantasy, which has remained intact for almost 28 years. Through my 20s, I worked on my operas 'til exhaustion knocked me out around 2AM most of the time. After 9/11 however, going to sleep got to be a problem. First I overdosed on CNN, then I dropped that and added The Daily Show to my nighttime remedy. I moved back to LA and broke my leg in 2005. The pain was extraordinary and Ambien didn't work, so I tried marijuana instead (which I'd had maybe half a dozen times previously) and that sent me towards such a sleep I've since come to think of it like a nightcap.

When I share my bed I don't need any of these things. There's a calming influence of sleeping with someone. But that hasn't been for very much of the last 7 years. And when I'm alone, I now have the trifecta to defeat sleep each night. Pot, The Daily Show and Masturbation. Sleep doesn't stand a chance. One or all of these are part of a nightly ritual. But I feel like I should be able to just lay me down on my own. I feel like there's something wrong that I rely on all that. (Though I should say I have a harder time when The Daily Show goes on break than when I'm not smoking. And I almost never go to bed alone unsatisfied.)

But I feel I have a good relationship with putting myself to bed. And I thought I could use a spiritual cleansing around that.

Lucky for me, during those 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, you're supposed to make amends with all those you have wronged during the year. So you can go to God with a clean conscience on Yom Kippur. In addition to the spiritual and the interpersonal, there is a physical aspect, the fast on Yom Kippur. AND I just found out there's an additional fasting day which I've never observed. I'd never even heard of it before. It's called “Fast of Gedalia”** It's a one day fast the Saturday before Yom Kippur and I thought, “What if I took that fast and extended it for the entire 10 days I'm supposed to be getting ready to atone?”

It was a little crazy, so I liked it.

And that's what I decided I would do. I'd do a spiritual cleanse for 10 days including:
1) Reading from the torah publicly
2) Private Prayer
3) Making amends with people
4) And a 10 day fast.

Day 1 starts Thursday morning, September 8.

I'm blogging about this starting a eight days later, but I'll be posting every day to keep the same flow.

Wish me luck.


**Gedalia was appointed ruler of Judah by king Nebuchadnezzar (c. 600 B.C.E.) after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple and all of Israel. He was assassinated by Jews who considered him either a collaborator or simply unfit to rule because he was not from the royal line. After this assassination, most all Jews fled Judah and Israel for fear of retribution by the Babylonians and Israel was left desolate. (accounts can be found in: 2 Kings 25:25-26, Jeremiah chapter 41 and Zechariah 8:19)