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.


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