My High Holidays Learning Experience

As you know from my last post, I find the High Holidays challenging. This blog is supposed to tell you something about my experience going through cantorial school and I so I want to be open about some of the specific challenges this year.

This year was musically challenging. In cantorial school there are two types of people: those with a strong music background who want to use that in service of the Jewish prayer; and those with a strong background in Jewish prayer who want to get their leading skills up to a professional level. To be clear, these aren’t rival groups; we’re great colleagues because we’re all trying to get to the same place, but for each of us there are different skills we need to develop to get there.

While I’m squarely in the second category (lots of Jewish prayer experience, trying to level up as a musician) I found myself working in a choir with musicians who had more formal training and experience than I did, and getting left behind in following the music. I felt a little bit like the second grader who is learning to decode and insists they can read all of Harry Potter.

As a prayer leader, I have two types of experiences: great experiences, and great learning experiences. I’m not just throwing out euphemisms to say that this was one of the latter: I have a much clearer picture of where I need to go and what I need to do to get there, in terms of work and getting feedback from my colleagues. And unlike the second grader mentioned above, I have the learning and study skills (I’m actually have material from my current education class about how humans learn open in another window!) to work on it.

Before and after Yom Kippur we wish each other an easy or meaningful fast, as we have greetings for other days, as we say “how are you?” and expect the answer to be “fine” (or better). This positivity has a purpose–I know I always feel a little better myself when I answer “how are you?” with an enthusiastic “great!”–and I think there’s also a time for acknowledging things aren’t always easy. Without that acknowledgement, we can’t ever support each other when things aren’t going well. That why I wanted to write this here. Yom Kippur, too, is a time to acknowledge our mistakes. And while I don’t think that needing to work on my sight reading is exactly a sin against God, or something that Yom Kippur atones for, it is a good time to refocus on what I need to work on professionally and academically in the coming year. Despite the liturgy, I don’t believe the gates are closed.

High Holidays, Why Holidays

The Jewish High Holidays are such a strange and challenging phenomenon. Hundreds of people pile into synagogue, dressed in uncomfortable clothes, sitting uncomfortably close together, challenged to find parking. Even those of use who are familiar and comfortable with synagogue rituals find that we are in a different place that is not familiar. Not to mention with the holidays coming during the bustle of the start of the school year it’s hard to concentrate on religion. Those of us in careers outside of school seem to have an uptick in professional crises and those of us whose careers are in the synagogue sure do.

Ostensibly were are to be thinking about repentance, about sin and trying to be a better person. But I look around the room and wonder how many people are thinking about that. Maybe they’re thinking about family, and tradition, and those are good things, but not actually the theme of the holiday. What do people get out of these holidays? What obligation have they fulfilled? I spent the morning of Shabbat Shuvah, the Saturday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur at Shir Hadash, a small Reconstructionist congregation and we actually discussed this: how people seem to feel that have fulfilled some obligation just by attendance for these few days. But is what Judaism asks really just to show up for the family tradition? Isn’t it asking us to truly reexamine our lives? Maybe even reexamine those very traditions we might be following yet not letting them newly affect us?

I have this idea that High Holidays are more like a workshop in how to be a better person. We’ll keep the liturgy on hand as a reference, to prevent us from getting too caught up in faddish self-improvement, but run things differently: discussion groups, break-out sessions, inspring presentations, shared meals and drinks as part of the actual event. I’ve seen plenty of once-a-year conferences that manage to break up the day and serve lunch. It’s not as if there is no option to staying in our seats for hours, page through liturgy few understand, and go home hungry. You’d come out of Rosh Hashanah inspired by the plans you’ve made; and ten days later, which is just enough time to realize sticking to that diet or not fighting with your spouse over that same thing is not going be easy—you come back to really recommit, taking your work so seriously this time you skip lunch without even noticing.

As we enter Yom Kippur, here’s the traditional greeting: G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May your fate be sealed for a good year to come.

It’s About Time

It’s about time I write another blog post here. It’s been almost a year.

But really, it’s about time management. Last year was a whirlwind. Lots of new classes, skills, jobs, experience, schedules. More than I could really do. It was kind of like: just say “yes!” to everything and see what sticks. Keeping up a blog, didn’t stick so much. What else was I doing: A cantorial soloist job. A teaching job. Singing in choirs. Singing solos. Re-learning to play guitar! Modern Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew. Mishna, Talmud, Nusach. Being a parent and a spouse (and a son and an uncle, etc.). Getting a new haircut. Freelance tech work. Services, conferences, concerts, shows. The summer was eight weeks of intense classes with no time to review, followed by driving 5,000 miles just for the fun of it. Oh, and I was in the hospital for pneumonia last year, too!

It was a lot of great experiences, but there was little I did as well as I could.

This year, my second year being back in school, I’m going to recommit to trying to do things better. I’m still going to do a lot, but maybe a little less, maybe not as much of it all new. There are 168 hours in a week, and I’ve thought about how many hours I need for different things. I need to account for sleep, because I fall asleep every night if I want to or not. And hopefully some healthy cooking and exercise, because those things get skipped too often despite best intentions.

And practice and studying. I need to get great, or at least really good, at the things I’m learning. There’s a place for surveys of knowledge, and that was last year; this year I need to see what I can master.

Also, my watch broke last summer. So I also need to fit in my schedule at the end of the summer a plan to get it fixed. 馃檪

Shemini Atzeret and Sanctifying Time

Happy Shemini Atzeret! It’s a holiday. I’m blogging.

The Torah says not to work. On Shabbat, while I don’t follow all the traditional rules, I don’t post online, e-mail, or type on a keyboard. That’s work: 诪职诇指讗讻指讛 (melakhah), the prohibited creative work that changes that state of the world. (As opposed to聽注植讘止讚指讛 (avodah), labor. No, leading services isn’t melakhah just because you’re a paid cantor.)

Last year, I went to work on some holidays, thinking: if my company wasn’t open, I’d be in synagogue. Now that I’m a “full-time Jew,” I don’t have an excuse, except that it can be really hard to make sacred time.

Shemini Atzeret is its own holiday because we celebrate one-day Biblical festivals for two days in the Diaspora, since ancient times when the Diaspora was Syria and Babylon.聽In Israel and in Reform congregations it’s concurrent with and overshadowed by Simchat Torah. There were historical reasons about seeing the new moon, but crucially, it means humans determine the days of the festivals. I learned last week this is why the festival Kiddush ends 诪拽讚砖 讬砖专讗诇 讜讛讝诪讬诐 (Mekadesh Yisrael vehazmanim, “sanctifies [the people of] Israel and the times [of the year],” whereas Shabbat, on a God-given seven-day cycle, doesn’t need Israel to make it holy, so Kiddush ends simply: 诪拽讚砖 讛砖讘转 (Mekadesh HaShabbat, “sanctifies the Sabbath”). I find it more authentic to be liberal with the extra day of a festival. I also believe it’s important to join a community, so, even though last night/today is the holiday in Israel/Reform congregations, I’ll celebrate Simchat Torah tonight/tomorrow along with my Conservative congregations.

When I used to go to work on holidays I wouldn’t say anything on social media: “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What I’ve found working in the Jewish community this year is that it’s more respectful to people to be honest about what I’m doing. Pretending I didn’t see an e-mail from my synagogue job when I’m checking e-mail is not particularly increasing holiness in the world. (I still avoid e-mail on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.) Maybe some synagogue won’t hire me someday because someone read this, and they expect the Cantor to be a model observant Jew. As a Jewish educator, I’d rather discuss what it means to sanctify holidays and observe mitzvot, and how Judaism can be meaningful and valuable even when it’s not easy and you’re not perfect at it.

And for those of you who find that Shemini Atzeret is the peak of your holiday season—maybe I’ll get better at sanctifying holidays next year.

Finally. Thankfully!

Cantorial school started last week. I no longer have a full-time job in the software industry and instead I’m a full-time graduate student in the Jewish world.

I was sitting in Panera in May 2010 with my laptop when I registered JHacker.org, which is as good a point as any to mark when I started thinking about a way to return to professional work in the Jewish community. Like all good things, COSEL wasn鈥檛 exactly what I had in mind when I started on that path. I guess my journey has taken me to where I needed to go.

Being in school is a little different as an adult. I like learning and am excited to be back in school. Like school at any age, there are teachers and books and classes, and the chance to grow and change. Also, at this level, school is a big, serious career investment. It’s more professional. Unlike high school and being overwhelmed with extracurricular activities, now being overwhelmed is more like starting a company and figuring out your business model. Compared to college, juggling family and self-care and practical issues is just like being an adult with any other job. More than some of the jobs I’ve had, it matters more now to dress and act professionally.

It’s also a change from seeing rabbis and cantors mostly as people at the front of the room to them being, well, almost everyone, all day, every day. We’re all just people who need to eat lunch and drink water and go to the doctor. And it’s going to be different now that, when I do go to buy a coffee or get a haircut, I’m doing so as a (student) clergy person, and I can’t take off my religious hat now that it’s the answer to “what do you do?” (Even if I actually still can take off my kippah. Especially for a haircut 馃檪 ). I’ve known this, but it’s even more obvious that clergy are people with the same characteristics that make all humans weird and beautiful.

In one of our activities, there was a chance to consider the character trait of 讛讻专转 讛讟讜讘 (hakarat hatov), gratitude, or more literally, 鈥渞ecognition of the good.鈥 Gratitude is the first thing Jews pray in the morning (modeh ani). It鈥檚 something I鈥檝e learned as a practice from contemporary mindfulness teachers, and something Cheryl has recently reminded me about, too. For too many of the past several years, while sitting in a corporate cubicle—acknowledging that I鈥檝e done some fairly cool things for what you can do sitting in a corporate cubicle—I鈥檝e been envious of people who have started businesses, traveled, learned, taught, sang, and done things other than collecting a salary and sitting in a cubicle. And yet I鈥檝e been anxious about doing anything else. My intention is to practice more gratitude. If I get frustrated about something, I need to be grateful for all the things I have, and especially the family, friends, and colleagues that have been amazingly supportive. If I get envious or anxious about something, I need to recognize how many things have already, and will continue to, work out. I hope to work on this more in the coming year.

As I used to sing in the Shira Kline song with the kids in tot Shabbat, 鈥Barukh atah Adonai—thank you God.鈥

National Havurah Committee Institute 2017

Thanks to the generosity of Gary Orren and the Merle Orren Scholars Transformation (MOST) program of Temple Emanuel I鈥檓 spending this week at the National Havurah Committee Insitute being held this year at the University of Hartford.

The National Havurah Committee is an organization of groups knows as 鈥渉avurot鈥 (the plural of 鈥渉avurah,鈥 from the Hebrew root meaning both 鈥渇riend鈥 and 鈥渕ember鈥) and has existed and been running this event since at least 1980. Many of the participants return to the Institute year after year, some for more than 20 years. Being at Institute is a little like grown-up Jewish summer camp; there are always activities going on (more than any one person can do). You sign up in advance for two longer classes which are held daily, plus there are various other workshops, activities, and experiences to attend. For example, I attended a workshop where I learned how to crochet a kippah (not that I actually can do it yet, but I can appreciate better how the ones I wear are made). For my main classes, I鈥檓 attending one on the 鈥淩ebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto,鈥漚 Polish Chasidic rebbe who uniquely bridged tradition and modernity in ways we can learn from, and most of whose works were lost until his manuscripts we found buried in Warsaw after he was killed in the Holocaust. My other class is 鈥淰isual Midrash鈥 taught by a professional artist where we鈥檒l get to work on parchment to create art.

Havurot are typically small, volunteer-member-run groups, either independent or part of large synagogue. The independent ones tend to function as synagogues for their members in term of having services, and overlap with 鈥渋ndependent minyanim鈥 that have been popular in recent years. It鈥檚 certainly a different approach to Judaism than being part of a large synagogue, but being here makes me realize that we鈥檙e all in the same boat: just as synagogues need to be participatory places with small communities to involve people, havurah members also participate in schools, camps, and synagogues for Jewish education and community. At a program last night, the Institute鈥檚 Liturgist in Residence Mitch Chefitz shared how at his synagogue, the few remaining Shabbat morning regulars always wait at Kiddush for the rabbi to bless the challah, an echo of the ancient past where the priests had a special role in the Temple; but what鈥檚 happening more and more today is 鈥減artnership Judaism鈥 where all of us are partners with God, and they’re looking for ways to do that.

Another interesting thing about this year’s Institute is that it coincided with Tisha b’Av, the sad fast day of the Jewish calendar, a remembrance of the destruction of Temple in Jerusalem. Being with a Jewish group that was marking the day made it more meaningful and I actually completed the fast. And, while many synagogues hold services outside of the sanctuary to symbolize the exile, being actually outside my synagogue did that even more. As the fast was drawing to a close, just before the sun began to set, I saw a rainbow over the campus. I searched with my phone and found (on Chabad.org) and said the prayer for seeing a rainbow:聽讘指旨专讜旨讱职 讗址转旨指讛 讬讬 讗侄诇讜止讛值讬谞讜旨 诪侄诇侄讱职 讛指注讜止诇指诐 讝讜止讻值专 讛址讘旨职专执讬转 讜职谞侄讗直诪指谉 讘旨执讘职专执讬转讜止 讜职拽址讬指诐 讘旨职诪址讗植诪指专讜止—that God remembers and is faithful to the covenant (he made when showing a rainbow to Noah) and keeps his word. The idea that after a hard time we still have God’s covenant seemed like a very appropriate theme as the close of Tisha b’Av is soon followed by the season of Jewish holidays.

I鈥檝e heard about the Institute various times over the years and am glad I finally had a chance to attend. It鈥檚 given me Jewish experiences that are expanding my knowledge in ways I wouldn鈥檛 ordinarily have, and that no doubt I鈥檒l find myself reflecting back on in my future involvement in the Jewish community.

Why I鈥檓 becoming a cantor

This fall, I鈥檓 going back to school at Hebrew College, in the Cantorial Ordination for Spiritual Education and Leadership (COSEL) program, a unique, intensive track offering ordination as a cantor along with a master鈥檚 degree in Jewish education.

Judaism has always been important to me, including sharing it with others. As Rabbi Tarfon said, 鈥渢he day is short, the labor vast.鈥 A few years ago, I鈥檇 have said I could contribute to the Jewish community just as well as a lay leader. While I had a Jewish studies degree and some experience working in a religious organization, I also had a secular career and could pay synagogue dues and preschool tuition to support the work of talented clergy and educators, and surely my computer skills would be useful to some volunteer project.

In that mode, I learned Torah trope from my cantor, filling a gap in my skills. I signed up for a class with Rabbi Art Green at Hebrew College; his authentic and positive approach to Judaism, and how it influenced their new pluralistic rabbinical school, resonated with me. I also had a backlog of ideas for Jewish ed-tech projects that, frustratingly, never gained traction. I found I enjoyed teaching and leading prayers more than committee meetings, and the more I did, the more I wanted to learn.

Two things drew me to the cantorate. First is the range of disciplines involved. There are technical skills, like nusach and vocal technique. There’s rabbinics and scholarship, education and pedagogy, leadership and art. Second, public prayer is the central activity of religion. More than an intellectual pursuit, ritual inspires people to receive sacred truths, and a cantor is the professional making it relevant, meaningful, and beautiful—in the classroom, the sanctuary, or at a life cycle ceremony. Especially in the 21st century, a hazzan鈥檚 job will include, but not be limited to singing, and I believe COSEL will help me make an impact.

I’m really excited to spend more time on this important work, and honored to serve the Jewish people. Keep an eye on this blog for occasional thoughts from this new chapter of my career.

See you in services!

InfoArtist Reprise

鈾

I’ve been having d茅j脿 vu over the past year or so, since I’ve started brushing up on my music skills.

I’ve done something like this before. Almost 20 years ago, when I was trying to take my software skills up to a professional level. I was spending my spare time reading books and articles to learn the technical details of the field, practicing and going to public events to learn more, volunteering to do any computer-related thing at work.

Of course, some of the details are different. I remember reading paper magazines on bus trips to Boston back then, and am more likely listening to podcasts in my car now. Ok, I’m not exactly volunteering to sing at work, but I’ve similarly been finding opportunities to lead and teach sacred music at home and at my home synagogue.

People who’ve met me since I’ve moved to Boston probably assume that software was the career I went to college for, but actually it was a career change I made early on. The other familiar side of this is not knowing yet if I鈥檒l ever feel like a 鈥渞eal鈥 part of the new field I鈥檓 learning about, if I鈥檒l be accepted and make it a career change or just a story to add to my experiences.

Around the time of that earlier career transition, I used a screen name “InfoArtist” on various services, because my passion was bridging creative work and information technology. I’m not planning to resurrect that name, but “geeking out” on a new mix of artistic and technical subjects is still fun.

Not everything is the same now: at this point in my life I am in some ways more confident and yet sometimes more measured in in what I do. I know that who I truly am is more than any one job or even profession, and there’s enough left to learn to last a lifetime.

Singing in Harmony

Had my first time singing in harmony, on stage, since I was in college, this past weekend singing with Hebrew College’s chamber choir Kol Arev as part of the Byzantine Music Festival.

IMG_2400

It’s worth noting “Byzantine” here does not refer to the ancient empire nor is it being used as you might hear it as an adjective meaning something like “complicated.” It’s referring the Byztanine Rite, i.e., the rituals of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Of course, our Jewish music wasn’t part of the Byzantine Rite, we were providing an interreligious counterpoint for our hosts, a Greek Orthodox seminary.

It was also my first time singing tenor in a choir. Which is harder than bass, not only to hit the higher pitches, but because my instincts are to sing the root note of the chord and my muscle memory from years ago still makes me want to look at the bottom staff of the system. It was good a challenge for me!

Are you a bridge or a gate?

Last weekend I went to Let My People Sing, a Jewish singing retreat at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

It was a great opportunity to learn, sing, take risks, and celebrate Shabbat in a different way in a supportive community.

image
Lead teachers Jessi Roemer, Joey Weisenberg, and Dafna Mor performing.

Like any retreat or conference, the question at the end is, how do I take my learning and inspiration and bring it back to “real life” and my regular communities? I get that what happens at Isabella Freedman isn’t everyone’s cup of (organic, Kosher, gender-pronoun-aware) tea. It is, as we’d say at a synagogue where I spend a lot of time, a “gate”; one of many gateways into Judaism. But this bothered me: it’s not enough for people to just be happy doing their own things, there is value in learning and sharing together.

As my wife Cheryl recently wrote, 鈥淚 was taught to sing… [and] those songs would make the world better.鈥 I don’t know if there is really more discord than ever these days, but with Trump, #blacklivesmatter, ISIS in the news, it sure feels like it. And music can be a way to bring us together. Music makes humans respond in a way that is more universal than words and less individual than pictures. It’s a bridge, not a gate.
So, I struggle with how to be a bridge between the different gates I find going through. One weekend it’s with progressive, renewal type of community that you find at Isabella Freedman. This Shabbat, I’m teaching and leading among the deeply committed, adult community who comes to shul in all weather. And this year I’m also part of the community of b’nai mitzvah parents who, each in their own way, finds something sacred in the complicated challenge of becoming a teenager.

At Let My People Sing, the lead teachers were the bridges. Each of them brought experience, talent and songs that could engage people anywhere. I’ve noticed that great religious leaders bridge the gates鈥攐ften it’s a rabbi or other leader that can bring people together across the different groups and circumstances that make up a larger community.

The truth is, a city isn鈥檛 built with only bridges or only gates alone. You need both. (And lots of other things.)

At the closing circle of the retreat, one of the organizers spoke about how we had worked at unearthing parts of our tradition we might have been disconnected from. Certainly the theme of this blog, “Finding My Voice,” is about returning to something I had become disconnected from.

I hope that I will make music that is a bridge and, may it be God’s will, many voices will sing along.